The Infosys Utilities Blog seeks to discuss and answer the industry’s burning Smart Grid questions through the commentary of the industry’s leading Smart Grid and Sustainability experts. This blogging community offers a rich source of fresh new ideas on the planning, design and implementation of solutions for the utility industry of tomorrow.


August 16, 2019

A Smart Society

As we move towards smart electricity grids, there is a lot of focus on the technical challenges we face. These include the equipment, sensors, instrumentation and controls to manage the physical aspects of the smart grid, as well as the OT and IT that will be needed to control it. These changes represent a major shift in how networks are controlled, right down even to phase.

There are however many societal issues that will also need to be addressed. At present many, including some regulators, are assuming that the necessary changes of use, such as time off-sets, can be achieved through appropriate pricing structures. However in other sectors, such as water, where metering has been introduced to reduce consumption, in some more affluent areas consumption has actually risen. When questioned the customers responded that they could afford whatever water they wanted.  This sort of response could prevent a smart grid solution from working if driven totally by economic measures.

Consider a street where many customers have Electric Vehicles (EV). This street can sustain, say, 10 cars on a fast charge at any time: more would lead to thermal issues. The theory is that by making the fast charge price much higher than the trickle charge, the number of customers requesting fast charge would naturally be limited. However it is more than possible that far more than 10 customers want to quickly recharge their EV, so that the EV is available for full use as soon as possible, and are willing to pay the premium price for this benefit. Moreover, the most likely time for this to occur would be early evening, when many have just arrived home from work: this is already a peak period for electricity use. The network system operator would have no choice but to curtail some of the fast charge requests. However, how is this managed? Is it always on a 'first come, first served' basis? If so, those who have the shortest commutes, and hence potentially have less need for the fast charge, would always be the people who would get this facility. Such a situation would give rise to discontentment in those who could not get the fast charge facility, and likely to cause neighbourhood disputes.

The above situation is just one of the possible societal impacts that could occur should the move to smart grid just be kept at the technical and economic level. There are many others: for example where peer to peer trading, or vehicle to grid supply, has to be curtailed due to network constraints. I believe that the industry, governments and regulators need to start a debate in society where such matters can be considered widely. The recent grid outages in the UK, and subsequent press coverage, shows that even the mainstream media has very little understanding of how electricity networks operate. Without wider understanding, and appropriate debate about the choices that will need to be made, the industry will struggle to deliver the expected benefits from smart girds, and moreover could receive a lot of criticism.

Given the international push to greener technology, such as EVs, this societal debate needs to start now.

April 26, 2019

Utility Regulation: some considerations for the future

Utility regulation is generally complex, no matter where in the world it exists. By nature utilities tend to be a monopoly in the areas they serve, as there is generally only one utility connection of each type (water, electricity, gas, telecom) serving a property. Governments are rightly concerned that customers receive good service and value for money, however does the regulation need to be complex, and are there issues that are not being addressed through regulation?
Utility regulation is commonly split into two areas, the first being customer service. Various qualitative and quantative measure are used here. For quantative measures, time of response to queries, and the avoidance of repeat queries, are generally used. Qualitative measures are based on some form of structured survey of customers who have contacted the utility. Companies are then ranked against each other, and in some cases these rankings used as incentive mechanisms (i.e. the top ranked gains incentives, the bottom ranked loses incentives).
The second area is investment. This covers new or replacement assets (capital expenditure, or CAPEX), and maintenance of existing assets (operational expenditure, or OPEX). Sometimes these are combined in net present value (NPV) or similar calculations to give 'benefit over time' values (total expenditure, or TOTEX). Recently there has been a focus on base operating expenditure (or BOTEX), however this is really a subset of OPEX. Regulators ask utilities to prepare business plans for future investment over a period, scaling risks (e.g. asset failures), issues (e.g. population growth, climate change) and opportunities (e.g. improved quality) against expenditure options. After some discussion between regulators, the utility, customer bodies, other regulators and government (local and/or national), a business plan is agreed for the particular period. The utility is then measured against this plan by the regulator.
However is this overly complex? Whilst the customer measures are simple, in reality most customers regard a utility as a 'fit and forget' service. As long as clean water comes out of the taps, the toilets flush, the lights come on and the gas flows, then they are happy, subject to them paying what they regard as a fair price. The prime focus should therefore be on providing a reliable and safe service. Reliability of service forms part of regulation in some cases, but not all. In terms of investment, the main factors that affect cost are the distance to provide the service and the number of units provided. So for each customer, the more units provided and the further this has to travel, the more that service will cost. There is therefore a curve that can be drawn against units and distance per customer, with companies below the average curve performing more efficiently.
All of the above mechanisms do miss a key issue, and that is ageing assets, an area largely not addressed by current regulation. Many utility assets are old, and replacement cycles very long. For example there are electricity cables over 75 years old, and water mains and sewers over 150 years old. Current replacement rates mean that water mains would only be totally replaced after 150-200 years, and sewers 400-600 years. The replacement cycles for electricity and gas are similarly long, with transformers often only replaced after 80 years. Are such timescales realistic, or are we building up problems for the future? A good measure for any utility would therefore be the 'residual life of assets'. Across their asset base this 'residual', or time before failure, should at least be maintained, or ideally improved, so that burden is not placed on future generations. However more research is needed on rate and probability of failure, so realistic asset life for each type of asset can be determined. There has been some work in this area (such as condition based risk management and pipeline integrity management), and modern tools such as AI and Computer Vision may be a great help in such research and analysis.
So is current regulation fit for the future? I would argue that we need to both simplify measures with regard to customer service and investment, as well as building new measures to ensure that the utility is looking after their assets for future generations. We need to address these issues very soon, otherwise we may find that we are increasingly chasing asset failures. Fixing things before they break is generally much cheaper, and avoids a lot of pain for us all.

December 17, 2012

The Power Within

With increasing volumes of information and data lying across the organisation and sometimes buried deep inside the organisation, finding accurate information fast is a necessity. Users are asking and expecting it and senior executives are demanding instant fulfilment, as speed and access is critical to increasing business productivity.

Enterprise Content Management (ECM) or 'findability' is more than managing documents and records according to defined organisational processes to keep them safe and compliant. It is also about finding, accessing and using the content to support and enhance the business activity they are engaged with. Providing this unified view with the underlying synchronisation of operational support systems, HR, ERP, CRM, etc. is complex and no mean feat. It requires the business face of the organisation closely liaising and working with the IT side.

Access to the right information at the right time is also essential in delivering a high quality of customer service, reducing business risk and meeting regulatory requirements for water utilities. If you want to find out how one water company, Anglian Water, succeeded in its quest to empower its knowledge workers by:

· Creating a comprehensive document management system with a taxonomy and metadata, allowing people to find information quickly and easily

· Delivering an integrated repository of structured and unstructured data sources, which provides a unified view of information across the business- one source of the truth, accessible to 4,000 employees and 500 business partners

· Simplifying searches combined with more granular reports and greater quality assurance to help Anglian Water meet its regulatory obligations and make more informed decisions about capital projects, which minimizes its exposure to operational risk and/or regulatory fines.


Watch Anglian Water discuss their approach to Smart Data.


July 6, 2012

Lights, Thermostats and Locks

Lights, Thermostats and Locks


Is that all there is to our new advancing convergence of utility and service markets for the homemaker and small business owner, "Lights, thermostats and Locks"?  First off, why "Lights" doesn't anyone understand that lighting is one of the least users of energy in the home or small business?  Yet, whenever we see a discussion 'lighting' seems to be an important part of any program.

Likewise Energy Management Systems, even those touted to be 'advanced' don't seem to ever venture beyond traditional direct load control (utility shuts off a device, such as A/C compressor, pool pump, water heater, etc., in peaking period for a specified time), or via Programmable Controllable Thermostats ("PCT's") where a price signal is sent to a thermostat to set-back the cooling setting for a specified period, or a 'display' showing current pricing, total usage and (sometimes) a projected usage.  We even have Alarm Companies that are offering 'monitoring' systems that also control lighting, thermostats and lock/unlock doors.  Wow! These new functions and features are really great!  You might think so if all you could see was current advertising and "hype" around the new services offerings from your local electric utility, cable provider or alarm monitoring company. 

It seems that every mind numbing energy management system has been designed and built upon the premise that the consumer must be (somehow) made 'aware' of their consumption (and current pricing) so that they will make the 'right' choices in their energy purchases and then "they" will use a few simplistic functions surrounding "Lights, Thermostats and Locks".  But can't we do much, much better? It seems to me that our message here should be that "people can (and will) make better decisions with better information". Isn't that what utilities are trying to provide? 

While there is truth to that, smart meters by themselves only tell you when you are using a lot of energy...what they lack is an accompanying toolset to "do something about it"!   So, why can't we create a choreographed household that manages energy usage (possibly by device and groups of devices), that balances price to need, learns consumption and lifestyle patterns; and, importantly can analyze the interplay of multiple energy sources/options, and current and future usage against current and projected needs to produce the most efficient solution.  This sounds real interesting, but is it really possible?  I believe it is, and that it is achievable by building upon current mainstream AMI technologies. 

Here is where as an industry I think we lose sight of who the target audience is...if it's the general public they will think this is mumbo-jumbo (no offense) because they have no idea what THEIR benefit is to doing all of this.  So clearly we need to do a much better job of educating them on what value is in this for them (back to my point above about providing people with better information to make better decisions).  I also agree with the assessment that the real answer is favoring automated-intelligence over pieces of hardware (which is what dominantly is being marketed right now).

For this to work correctly we need significant change--and the new AMI technology is just the beginning.  The first of these are the rates that utilities charge consumers of their electricity; and for these new technologies to work all customers need to be charged time of use rates.  To me, this will produce a more equitable system.  For those willing to collaborate with the utility, they should be rewarded and those that do not collaborate should have to pay extra.  Everyone is suggesting that TOU is the starting point, but to me if you want to be radical - then we need a more equitable system. For example, if I keep my thermostat set at Energy Star settings all year long, but all my neighbors keep their AC at 60 degrees, I am actually paying for that (in the form of shared common utility costs).  So their overall capacity cost share should probably be more than mine since they exert more overall demand on the system than I do, especially at peak load times. But all of this will not happen without a revamp of our regulatory environment as well as an overall energy policy.  Here is another core issue...utilities/consumers have been benefitting from prior-decade decisions to build power plants and we have been riding that benefit.  Many of those plants across the country are about to reach their end of life.  Utilities need to invest in new generation, but without a comprehensive energy policy I could inadvertently create a new plant that is "taxed"/penalized because of the latest whim of politicians.  A comprehensive energy policy (not REGULATIONS) could provide the appropriate roadmap.  Maybe we even suggest a "grandfathering clause" for a plant that's built and/or upgraded specifically to adhere to that energy policy.

Typically each consumer is charged for three general categories of services; (1) a general customer charge, (2) a usage charge for how much you use over the billing period, and (3) a capacity charge (for how much maximum demand you actually place upon the system at some specified time; think of this as how fast you turn on the water), but right now the capacity charges are typically only called-out and detailed for very large commercial and industrial customers; while it's embedded within the small commercial and residential rates.  In today's world your local utility has to build and operate their system to meet all three of these demands that you actually may place upon their system. But they bill you individually based upon the aggregate of the group you're within. So when you behave responsibly and raise your thermostat on really hot days you're paying the same rate per kWh as your neighbor that runs their house at 66 degrees all summer.  So while they are actually consuming far more expensive energy they are actually paying the much cheaper average rate and you are helping to make-up the difference.

Residential and small commercial customers generally make-up the largest blocks, by numbers, of customers for a utility; but may be eclipsed in overall load caused by the utility's very large industrial customers (which may constitute a fairly small number of accounts).  Further the residential and small commercial customers may often also have the greatest variability between low average usage, average usage and peak usage; and even more so during extreme peak periods.  Thus these individual points of seemingly low consumption become significant matters for utilities when they are aggregated into 10's of thousands and even millions of customers.  So systems and programs that can positively influence the actions of these individual customers can have significant impacts at the utility level.  Therefore the message from the utility to the customer is simply, "you can make a real difference in your impact on the environment and your monthly energy costs".  A good analogy is recycling...every little bit helps but you really get a social benefit when everyone participates.

However we also need to remain aware that individual consumers are not ever going to become energy wardens and spend a significant part of each day monitoring and controlling their energy consumption.  The key, to me, is that we need to try and begin to address the entire premise by providing technologies and customer rate programs that you can set-up/configure and then (essentially) forget.  We need these programs to provide a way to make decisions based upon the housing/premise characteristics, energy-consuming devices and life-style (or business type) of the utility customer; and the system needs to know enough about the various energy consuming, storage and generating devices to learn and optimize their use to match current and forecast conditions and lifestyle events. 

But all is not lost as I'm starting to see evidence that utilities and technology vendors; and PHEV/PEV manufacturers are starting to address these issues.  For example, in Spain, Endesa (one of Europe's largest electric utilities) is moving toward integrating the charging and battery storage capabilities of PHEV/PEV's.

(Endesa enables electric vehicles to return power to the grid;

In Texas, TXU Energy has announced a rate plan for "Free Nights".  Through this rate plan consumers will get free energy from 10 PM to 6AM of every day.  I'm hoping to see next "Free Nights and Weekends".  I'm also anticipating that perhaps TXU might bundle this with upgraded air conditioning, like an ice-based chilled water system, perhaps?  Then perhaps we could see room-based zone heating/cooling?  Pneumatic zoning in very economical; maybe in the new TXU world this type of A/C should be designed in with any new/retrofit install?

Then again on the PHEV/PEV front we have Toyota offering a charging system that is starting to look like a precursor to a whole-premise energy management toolset.

"Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC), in collaboration with its customer service IT company, Toyota Media Service Corporation, has developed a tool to support easy home-based charging of the Prius PHV plug-in hybrid vehicle, due for launch next year, and electric vehicles (EVs). Toyota Housing Corporation, TMC's house construction and design subsidiary, will start sales of the tool, the H2V (home-to-vehicle) Manager, in Japan in January 2012.  PHEV users can connect (wired or wireless) to the H2V Manager from a home PC, television or smartphone to set or adjust their PHV or EV charging start time, as well as check household electric power consumption. The same operations can be performed remotely with a smartphone, through the Toyota Smart Center.

When necessary, the H2V Manager automatically interrupts PHV or EV charging when household power demand spikes, and then resumes charging when there is spare power capacity. This function prevents circuit breakers from cutting off power supply when a large number of home appliances are used simultaneously, pushing electricity consumption beyond the home's maximum voltage."  The logical next step seems obvious.

So perhaps I was too harsh in my complaint about lights, thermostats and locks.  Maybe we're really moving in the right direction with the real-world application of Smart Grid.  I'd just like to see it happen a bit more quickly with less emphasis on the single small steps and more on the whole house (or premise) approach.

May 15, 2012

Increasing Customer Self Service Adoption in Utilities

Most of us already know that properly designed Self-service channels are much more cost-effective and convenient than other traditional customer communication channels like direct calls to Utility's Customer Service Representative or communications through physical paper etc. Then what are the main reasons that self-service adoption rate is still very low?

There are quite a few reasons like unstructured organization of data and process flow, not enough information to make the customer feel confident about doing it on his own etc but if utilities who have all these corrected but still having low adoption rate the most important reason that I personally feel is the inability to attract customer for the first time.

I think everybody will agree that in today's world money is the biggest motivator for the general mass in order to attract them for doing something. But it is also true that incentives are never the best and efficient way to attract customers. 

Do you know how utilities pass on the operational cost-savings to the customer that they are achieving with more use of such self-service channels? 
As part of General Rate Cases (GRC) this cost benefit gets factored in the rate at which customer pays their utility bills. Can't we think about any alternate way to pass on this cost benefit and get additional advantages out of it without spending anything extra than what the utilities are already spending right now? 

When operational cost savings is accounted for in GRC rates, the benefit gets passed to all customers even though there are only few customers (self-service users) who are directly contributing to some part (cost savings due to self-service use over other costly channels) of this cost saving.

Find below some of the options, advantages and ways of incentivizing the customer for more use of self-service -

  • Estimate cost-savings for each of the self-service features over traditional use of the same feature like placing a move-in/move-out/transfer order online instead of speaking to an agent to place the order or getting paperless bill over paper bill etc. Then assign an incentive to each of these features (doesn't need to be all and utilities can decide which one to give incentive for) and provide a credit to the customer as part of their monthly bill based on some of the significant-cost-saving features that were used by the customer in that month/bill cycle.
  • Have lucky draw/sweepstakes for some of the minimal-cost-saving transactions instead of trying to give incentives in pennies.
  • Also arrange for some lucky draw/sweepstakes for customers participating in constructive discussions, content rating, idea generation etc in the utilities social media forum. This is not a direct cost savings for the utility but a very small portion of the money that utilities currently spend on marketing and research can be utilized here to start interactive engagement with customers and thereby getting valuable inputs from the customers.
  • Incentive for Customer  - Providing a greater incentive in a direct way to eligible customers rather than providing very minimal incentive to all the customers.
  • Increase Self-Service adoption - More number of customers will use self-service primarily for the incentive (I am not ignoring the ease of use factor though) and thereby increasing self-service adoption rate.
  • Increase Customer awareness - In order to get the incentives customers will try out self-service on their own and utilities will get a chance to provide sufficient educational content that the customer will come across during the process. Educating the customer about different aspects of his engagement with utility and increasing awareness like energy use, energy efficiency, different billing and payment options etc are major goals of current utilities.
  • Getting valuable inputs from customer - Utilities spend lots of time and money to generate new innovative ideas, getting feedback, doing research on marketing etc. But I think they will get much more better result if they can reach out to the mass through the social media forums and get direct inputs from the end-customers who can be considered as a wider resource pool for utilities own work.
Marketing about this incentive
  • The most common channel in which customer communicates with utility is by calling the utility. Once the automated system (IVR) identifies that the customer is calling for something for which he needs to talk to an agent rather than an automated system and the same service is already available in utilities web portal it can read out a brief message about that alongwith informing the customer that he will be getting an incentive for completing that transaction on his own from the web portal.
  • The most common channel in which utility currently communicates with the customer is the bill and the associated fliers. Even though many customers don't go through these in detail but utilities can inform the customer about this incentive through a message in the bills.
I would like to know what type of issues do you think are there which prevents utilities from using this approach.

May 8, 2012

Vehicle to Grid technology to help Ancillary Services like demand response and boost PEV sales

776_1.jpgThe V2G (Vehicle-to-Grid) concept has been around for some time, but it's only now, due to the development of some very sophisticated technologies and some aggressive targets, that we can expect to see more electric cars on the roads enabled by the direct beneftis of V2G.

The V2G concept is actually very simple. The batteries of a PEV (Plug-in Electric vehicle) still have minimum energy stored even after fulfilling the average driving need of an user. These vehicle owners can participate in programs where grid operators will be able to control the vehicle's battery use during peak times and get some amount of electricity back to the grid, while crediting the vehicle owner for these grid services. In the end, the vehicle owners will also have control of how much energy he/she wants to put back into the grid considering his immediate driving needs. 
V2G can play an important role in the following -
  • regulation services which helps in keeping voltage and frequency stable, 
  • spinning reserves which helps in meeting sudden demand for power,
  • charging at night during low demand and providing power back to grid during high demand
Even though utilities are increasing their reliance on intermittent renewable generation capacity like solar/wind power but still additional backup options like V2G would provide greater reliability in the case sufficient wind and solar power are not available. 
Based on different government initiatives and market traction increasing numbers of PEVs are expected to be on road within the next few years and this will create the tipping point for PEV. Larger numbers of PEV's will create a cost-effective alternative to stationary energy storage and traditional short-term power plants, which are currently used for these ancillary services. However, substantial infrastructure investments, strong growth in PEV sales and innovative vehicle based technology will decide the success of V2G. 
V2G could be an additional incentive for increasing PEV sales where cost is a major factor. With this Vehicle owners can quickly recover the cost of a PEV by putting it into maximum use (regular driving need as well as selling ancillary services) which otherwise will take longer with just savings in gasoline. Note that most of the current generation PEV batteries will last long enough even with frequent charging than the normal life of a car's regular use.

May 4, 2012

The end of CS Week and the beginning of Customer Empowerment

400_1.jpgAfter listening to Keynote Speaker, Chip Bell yesterday evening and sitting in the Customer Service Journey workshop this morning, I am excited to begin the journey toward customer empowerment!

It is very interesting to see the convergence of loyalty programs as they make the delayed transition from deregulated utilities to the regulated space. This transition has been non-existent or extremely slow in the past. Now I see a coupled merger between the activities of the regulated and deregulated ecosystems. The model for customer engagement that has become standard in the deregulated retail space is becoming common place within regulated utilities. Notifications, chat, social media collaboration are burgeoning areas with deregulated utilities, but there is a lot excitement to utilitize these channels to drive customer satisfaction in the regualted sector.

Client loyalty may be a foreign term for many utilities, but it is a huge portion of the typical consumer's consumption pattern. Today's consumers interact are increasingly driving the interaction with everyday purchases. These expected interactions must translate across their entire budget and all retailers whether they are CPG or regulated utility must strive to reach these individuals. Loyalty will be driven by influencers, detractors and advocates within these communities. How quickly utilities can address these consumer needs will not only drive loyalty but also savings with consumers.

Imagine a customer seeing a downed line in their neighborhood, snapping a photo of that downed line and uploading it to Twitter. The utility, with the proper listening and monitoring tools, could pull the geotag from the photo roll trucks and address this issue with a quicker response time, limiting potential exposure to outages and also customer safety. In addition, with a positive response through customer channels, the utility has the opportunity to drive customer loyalty.

I hope everyone had a successful week at CS Week 2012 and had an opportunity to learn as much as I did about ongoing trends. All the best until next year!

Gamification - Energy Savings can also be so much Fun!!

785_1.jpgIn today's environment, Energy savings has become a top priority for both utility and consumers. Today's customers are demanding and proactive. They want the right data to make informed decisions, and choices for themselves. Utilities are doing their bit by providing a lot of energy saving tips and information to customers on their website/ portals. However, customers are challenged with too much data, less time, and are overloaded by the monotony of searching through the avalanche of content.

So how do we make it interesting for the consumers?

Enter the fun and game quotient - Gamification as a concept is increasingly being used in multiple industries to promote work through play. The idea is to make the work interactive, point/score oriented encouraging competition.

So can we apply it to utilities interaction with their consumers to make it interesting?

Of course, let us look at a couple of examples.

  • Energize your home - Energy efficiency education through interactive games/tools
    • Rather than having multiple pages of static content on what can be done to save energy, the utility can implement an interactive visual model to impart the information. The visual model will show the customer's home profile information.
    • The customer can play a game by implementing energy saving tips like switching to CFL, or replacing an old refrigerator. Each change will show the cost, and annual possible savings with the change.
    • Overall Dashboard will have an 'Efficient home usage'score considering efficient appliances/heating/cooling, and 'My home usage' will change as the customers energize their home with more efficient energy saving devices.
    • The goal is how quickly the user can make his/her home energy efficient and closer to 'Efficient home usage' score. In the process, the user learns a lot of tips on saving energy.
  • Energy Champ -Foster energy savings and reduced bills through competition
    • Competition and peer pressure is a great way to drive people to achieve results. Utilities can encourage users to sign up for a forum/competition for improving their energy quotient - improve energy savings, reduce their bills.
    • Based on home profile information, display customer usage, similar home usage (in the forum), and ideal home usage. customers can be tagged  into Red, Orange, Green categories based on their usage.
    • User can sign-up for reducing their average usage for next 'X' months by certain goals - XX%, and be rewarded for achieving results
    • Polls, blogs to share questions, and ideas on what worked - using social media for education

While all these game ideas are good, it is important to keep them simple, interactive, and at the same time play oriented. Even, 'bragging rights' in a forum is a great motivator, especially with the younger demographics in today's consumer base.

Let your customers' nJoy energy savings!!

April 27, 2012

What is Customer "Empowerment" anyway, and How Can Utilities Get Started?

There has been much discussion about utilities needing to provide greater customer "empowerment" as a requisite for the emerging "smart grid" world we are now entering. But beyond this nice buzzword, what does "empowerment" really mean, and how are utilities supposed to start down this path of providing it? If we look at our industry today, energy and water consumers are generally not provided with a lot of information related to how they consume what utilities deliver - namely electricity, gas and water. We are typically operating within a paradigm of providing consumers with a monthly bill of "consumption" with no meaningful presentation of data that allows consumers to take action. Certainly there are many utilities that are well down the path here with some sophisticated programs, but generally speaking we are all just beginning this journey together. "Empowerment" is important on several fronts: 1) against the backdrop of more efficient production and consumption of resources, consumers represent a critical element to meeting these objectives, and 2) in an increasingly competitive industry landscape, consumers will be drawn to utilities (including energy retailers) that best "empower" them in how they can more effectively consume energy and water. Cost savings is one element, but the "green" element is also important to many consumers. There are many pieces that can be put in place to achieve a "big bang" approach to greater customer "empowerment." Over time, it seems pretty clear most utilities will embark on this journey. But for the large number of utilities that are just beginning these initiatives, what is a good place to start? From my perspective, deploying a web self-service portal for utility consumers is a relatively low cost - and low risk - starting point to go beyond the traditional paradigm. A portal, even as a deployment within existing legacy systems, will expand the types of customer service channels available to consumers, and can begin to "empower" them with greater and better information on their energy and water usage. The key of course is to select a portal that not only provides immediate benefits around account management, bill presentment and online payment, but also one that can adapt and expand as new components and systems like AMI, MDM and upgraded CIS are added to the mix. Deploying a portal in this manner provides the immediate benefits to utility consumers (and to utilities through lower live agent support costs), while providing the vehicle for more advanced "pilots" involving real-time analytics and energy efficiency/demand management programs which will take more time to mature in the market.

April 24, 2012

Why not to enable the customer self-service in traditional way...

Customer self-service areas have been dominating by the "custom" work done by utilities since last decade. Traditionally it is being preferred to deliver the self-service by utilities' "own way" rather than leveraging the best practices across industries....of-course choices & options were also limited.

Continue reading "Why not to enable the customer self-service in traditional way..." »

April 12, 2012

Prepay Billing and Payment Option (Part 2 - Solution to Regulatory challenges in US Market)

65_1.jpgFollowing on from my last blog on Regulatory challenges in US market on prepay service, I would now like to list out some of the solutions which can address the regulatory concerns.
Few Solutions:

  • First of all making prepay service mandatory to all customers doesn't seem to be a feasible option. Hence it will always be an optional/voluntary agreement.
  • Further to safeguard customer interests utility can choose to make certain customers like customers on life-support electric devices ineligible for this service so that knowingly also those customers won't fall into any risk.
  • Then whatever collection rules currently utilities have for their postpaid customers, those can be tweaked a bit so that they go well with prepaid service as well and still safeguard the customer.
  • For example, currently after a bill is generated customers normally get certain days of time for making a payment before late payment charges apply or disconnects get triggered. In prepaid service, similar to prepaid mobile phone balance alert or low gasoline indicator, sufficient number of alerts can be sent to customer whenever the prepaid balance falls below a certain level (like - balance will last another 7 days or 5 days or 3 days etc) based on the daily average usage before it gets remotely disconnected.
  • On top of this, based on the utility and corresponding PUCs (Public Utility Commission) rules like special provision for severe weather conditions, low income customers, even after prepaid balance becomes nil customer might still be allowed to use electricity up to a certain level which can be adjusted from the next recharge amount. Or if required, prepay service can also be automatically converted to postpaid service with a one-time conversion fee like deposit amount.
  • System can also check for spikes in energy usage -
    • To detect energy theft
    • To ensure that disconnects don't occur suddenly without having enough time to send the next alert

These types of details can definitely be worked out between the utility and the PUC depending on how flexible they want to be and this can geographically vary between different utilities.
The biggest problem we have is getting utilities to implement this concept. Once they deploy it, customers, utilities and PUCs will realize the benefits which are currently only on paper to them and I don't see any reason why this can't be a popular offering for both the utility and the customer.

April 5, 2012

Utility Inbox (Part 2 - Benefits to Utility & Customers)

Following on from my last blog on Utility Inbox where I discussed about the concept, I would now like to list out some of the benefits that this concept will provide to both Utility as well as the Customers.

Benefits to Utility & Customers:

  • Reduced Cost - Physical paper cost, printing cost, Postage cost to send these notices/messages/ letters to the customer, and manual labor cost associated to these processes can be eliminated.

  • Document Management - A copy of the exact content that has been sent to the customer will get automatically saved in Utility's outbox and can be archived, queried to support reporting requirements, legal requirements and also while addressing customer's call regarding the exact information that was sent.

  • Timely delivery and Early realization of revenue - The information can be delivered timely which would also give more time to the customer to respond (specially on time-sensitive notices) and won't face delays like no printing on holidays/weekends, no postal service on holidays/weekends, postal delivery issues. This would also help in early realization of revenues in some cases.

  • Greater Customer Satisfaction - Customer's will have all their utilities related notices/messages saved in a single inbox and there will be very less chance of losing them. This would also save them from handling and managing the physical papers and hence one less thing to bother about in their daily busy life.

  • Information Security - Information would remain secure and no need to bother about shredding the confidential information.

  • Remote access - Also customers would be able to get/access the information remotely even if they are not home and even if they are out of city, state, country. This will save some of the customers from getting penalized which might be happening currently if they are away from home and utility is sending any time-sensitive information to their postal address during that time.

March 31, 2012

Utility Inbox (Part 1 - Concept & Solution)

528_1.jpgCurrently many of the utilities, if not all, use email communication method to send some of the notifications and marketing messages to the customer.

Examples of such messages are - 'your bill is ready...',  'your payment is due on...',  'a demand response event is coming up and requires your action...',  'your payment has been rejected by bank...', 'a new program has been launched which might be beneficial to you...', 'this is your final notice to make payment...', 'your deposit amount has been fully paid...', 'Your payment arrangement details are...' etc.

The total number of instances of such messages/notices on a daily basis is very significant and the total O&M cost associated with this process is also very high.

If customers are given an option to ask for getting all these messages through utilities inbox then it is supposed to be a win-win for both the utility as well as customers.


  • The main challenge in this concept is customer mindset where they, in practical world, expect these messages through postal mail.
  • But with some of the solution options mentioned below (like making it optional, delivering alternate notification to primary email, starting with non-critical messages etc) this challenge can be minimized to a greater extent.


  • An Utilties inbox can be created in customer's My Account (Utilities online portal for customers) where all such messages can be securely delivered like most of the banking websites currently provide to their customers.
  • At the same time utility can send another email to the customer's primary (regularly accessed) email id notifying them about the actual message delivery to their utility inbox.
  • This will still be an optional choice for the customer to choose but since it has more benefits for the customer than the postal way hence most of the customers are probably going to opt for it.
  • During different times of interaction with the customer utility can get customer's contact preference on this and store it. This can be made sophisticated and customized by categorizing the different types of notices/messages and attaching customer's preference on each of this category.
  • In the pilot phase of implementation Utilities can only start with non-critical message delivery through this route, get customer feedback and based on that gradually include other critical messages. But at first, utility will have to take approval from their corresponding utility commissions for each of the message that they move from the regular delivery channel to this new channel.



March 6, 2012

High speed rail lines .........are water Utilities on the same track?

Last week one of the UK newspapers commented on United Utilities' idea to run a 2metre water pipe for over 200 miles from Manchester to London, this was especially topical given the announcement of the drought designation in the same week. I am sure the UK Government are keen to welcome innovative approaches to move water from apparently more plentiful areas to more "restricted" areas. However, how practical and viable would this approach really be?

The underlying fact is that it is extremely expensive to transport water, unless of course the route was all downhill. The amount of water that it is claimed would be transported down the pipe equates to less than 2% of Thames Water's daily supplied water.

However, even besides the physical cost and effort of transporting water, it was pointed out at the Water UK City conference last week in London by water company executives including United Utilities' CEO, Steve Mogford, that to run such a main down the side of the proposed High Speed Two (HS2) rail line would be a highly risky venture anyway!

But the principles of trading water relatively short distances between different water companies is a reality and is being more actively discussed as a result of the government's Water for Life white paper and Ofwat's, the water regulator, consultation document. The attendance of both Defra and Ofwat at the conference ensured active debate on the subject. The point is that whilst rainfall has been extremely low in many parts of the UK for quite some time, we have also experienced too much water, leading to floods in other parts of the country.

This unpredictability moves the debate to discuss the options available for water sustainability-type demand reducing initiatives such e.g. grey water use and more domestic water storage. Should such initiatives be implemented even when there are no actual restrictions in place? This would mean even with today's demand that there would then be surplus for use by other "more needy" requirements for clean water.

There are also other perspectives to be considered. The news article also identified the question of who would ultimately end up paying the cost... the customer of course. The initial cost of installation, as well as the on-going cost to operate (and maintain) such a structure would be substantial and is the price ultimately worth paying?

This topic is unlikely fade away given the changing climate the UK and other parts of the world have been experiencing recently. Thus more innovative thinking is required in terms of how a more sustainable solution to the water supply in the UK, as well as other parts of the globe is achieved.

Apple Siri - Changing the Self-Service way

Voice recognition has been an area where a lot of research is being done for quite some time and there had not been any major break-through until Apple Siri was launched last October along with iPhone 4S. Since its launch it has taken the world by storm and re-defining the capabilities of voice recognition. While Siri is evolving, and utilities are moving towards advanced self-service, then why not include Siri in the roadmap for utilities self-service journey.

The utility self-service application and other applications integrated with Siri, acting as a personal assistant, can take your customer experience to next level. Customer no longer need to log into their computers to open their online account, remember payment due dates, never miss any demand response events, etc. Whenever a notification is sent from the Utility, Siri would notify the customer based on their availability and customers can just ask Siri to take the necessary action without having to click or type. So making payments for utility services, getting analytic like best rate, tips to save energy, reporting emergency requests, outages, participating in demand response events, etc. can be achieved easily. Also Siri would be able to access a lot of information available on customers iPhone like calendar, notifications bar, notes, settings, etc. which gives it immense power to understand personal preferences and act accordingly. For example it will be smart enough not to disturb when in a meeting.

The best part of it is that customer gets connected with the utility as if he/she is talking to an agent, and at the same time there is no investment from the utility on a customer service representative. Also this agent does not have any issues in answering customer queries in a sweet voice every time the customer wants without any wait time nor does it have issues working at any hour.

A sample conversation between customer and Siri can be as follows.
Customer: Do you thing I am paying more for my utility bill
Siri: Based on current availability of plans, Residential Tier-1 seems to be best plan for you.
Customer: So if I switch from my current plan to new plan, how much would I save?
Siri: Based on your last 12 month's usage, you will save approximately 135$ annually.
Customer: Sounds good, can you sign me up for the new plan?
Siri: Your request is issued and your reference number is 3826432.
Customer: Please save the reference number for future purpose.
Siri: I have added a memo with the reference number.

With all these nice things said, there needs to be investment from utilities to start venturing into the newer areas when it is catching speed to catch the attention of customers and improve their self-service adoption rate drastically.

March 5, 2012

Prepay Billing and Payment Option (Part 1 - Regulatory challenges in US Market)

Pay-As-You-Go billing and payment option, also known as Prepay Service, is not an alien concept in Utilities. Even though it's very popular in Europe and Africa, it's gradually making it's way into US market as well.

I would like to discuss about one major challenge that this concept is facing in US market and why it is not big of a challenge. The challenge is not physical infrastructure but regulatory constraints from utility commissions.

The main concern that is being raised is to safeguard the customers and that is "utilities shouldn't disconnect the customers without taking all required measures for protecting the customer's interests".

Let me give you few analogies which show that prepay service works very well in few other industries in spite of having similar constraints.

Gasoline Usage and Mobile Prepay and their similarity with electric prepay:

Just take the example of prepaid services for mobile phones or gasoline usage in cars. Both mobile phones as well as gasoline have also become basic necessities in today's world much like electricity. Do electricity regulators ever think why prepaid services are allowed in these when they are not yet willing to accept it for utility? It's mostly due to mindset.

Customers having prepaid mobile phone already know about the risks associated with it and they knowingly opt for prepaid service and hence make required adjustments in their lifestyle and take required action to keep their prepaid service running as long as they want.

Same goes with gasoline usage. Did you ever hear a customer complaining that he was left stranded in the middle of a non-service area due to running out of gasoline in his car or a prepaid mobile phone user complaining that he doesn't have enough balance in his account to talk? In the gasoline scenario, isn't there any situation today where the customer runs out of gas even though he needed it badly?

Car manufactures already provided fuel indicators in each car so that customers are aware of how long the gas will last. Mobile prepaid service providers similarly provide alerts on minutes or balance remaining on the account.

So if customer is made aware of similar risks associated with prepaid service in electric utility where utilities will take the responsibility of providing them timely alerts of such risks like low balance and customer still voluntary opts for it then there shouldn't be an issue in disconnecting the customer when they run out of balance.

February 22, 2012

The rain falls mostly on the plains ....and not where we need it

The news this week that many areas of the UK are in drought and at high risk of needing to apply water restrictions is likely to leave many customers asking the usual question "So where does all the rainwater go?". The rainfall charts do show there has been reduced rainfall for a number of years and this accumulative affect is really starting to store up issues. However, I am sure many customers would still ask what can be done to more effectively capture and utilise the rain that does fall.

Of course, supply in the form of extraction of water from the various types of resources such as rivers, reservoirs, or groundwater from boreholes is only one part of the equation. The increasing demand from customers is the other, and in times of water restrictions the demand side becomes the primary area of focus for the water company to maintain its water balance. We are the seeing creative ways to deal with drought such as the  abstractions or water movements, such as using the River Medway which is itself very low to re-supply one of the reservoirs in Kent. However, this is not a sustainable activity and also often requires regulatory approval, e.g. the Environment Agency in the UK.

So, in addition to trying to predict rainfall which is notoriously difficult, the focus needs to turn to reducing demand through various water efficiency measures. It is well recognised that many of the water companies have been progressing initiatives in these areas for many years and that there are some notable examples where the overall demand has remained static even though customer numbers have increased by up to 20% in some regions.

With at least one of the UK national papers repeating water saving measures applied in 1976, such as sharing baths and other garden initiatives, the time for a more holistic Integrated Water Management approach ultimately resulting in a long term sustainable solution may be coming sooner than many expect.

What could this approach look like and what are the opportunities and challenges? Well this is likely to be a topic for discussion at the Water UK City Conference which Infosys will be attending on the 1st March 2012 ( ) and one that I will continue to comment on in my next blogs.


February 6, 2012

My Bank My Utility

Since Thomas Edison lighted up the bulb, you cannot imagine a life without electricity. It has become as essential as the air to breath. All that said, you still find yourself frowning when you get your monthly electric bill. If the customer is on a fixed monthly income, it becomes even harder.
Utilities thus provide lot of relief to the customer to make payments easier. Payment arrangement can be made before the amount is actually due. Even extension can be requested on the due date of the payment. Budget Billing (Level payments plans) is also available where in a fixed amount is paid by the customer every month.
What if my utility can help me get a loan towards my electric bill?
Loans:  Say the customer is expecting hard time paying the bills for the next whole year. He can very well request for a loan towards his electric bill from the Utility. Utility might have to consider the loan returning capability of the customer, prior to disbursing the loan. The utility can charge an interest on the loan to the customer. The interest rate in this case should definitely be lesser than the late payment charge to make this option beneficial of the customer. This option would be more helpful to the customer in comparison to payment extensions as the number of extensions allowed would be lesser than the loan term period.
Savings Deposit: Now think of the opposite case, when the customer has a surplus inflow of cash. What if he could create a savings deposit with the utility just like his own bank? The utility would then draw money from the deposit periodically and get the monthly payments processed. This guarantees the returns for the utility. The utility in turn also provides interest on the remainder amount. To encourage customers to opt for this, the utility might also provide a lower rate or a discount to the customers in return of pre-payments of the bills. Internally the Utility can get associated with Investments agencies and pass the profits back to the customer. In this case though, the deposit has to be guaranteed. In case of loss in the investments, the customer cannot be penalized.
All that said, there has to be regulations to prevent Utility from acting as a profitable organization.
• Unlike the financial sector, the profits needs to be public and the loss should be private. The customer's deposit needs to be protected and insured. Thus the utility might want some support from the government to ensure the same.
• The maximum limit of the deposit from the customer or the maximum loan to the customer should also be restricted to disallow customers from using the Utility as a full-fledged bank or an investment agency.
• The interest rate needs to be controlled and regulated. The investment should be low risk and low gain.
• There are certain regulations which require Utility to get approval prior to engaging in a business not related to Utility. It is also mandated that such non-utility businesses be kept separate from the regulated business. One such Act is the Public Utility Holding Company of 1935 (PUHC), also known as the Wheeler-Rayburn Act, passed by the United States Congress .
• The major piece of financial processing done by a Utility is payment processing. Once loan and deposits options are provided to the customer, it would be an overhead for the Utility to manage and control this. The business rules have to be defined to take care of exception like say pre-payment of loans or early withdrawal of the savings deposit etc. It would be a good option to partner with an investment agency/bank or outsource this piece. This should be seamless to the customer; otherwise it might be a hassle for the customer.
To summarize, this concept can be applied to all kind of utilities and service providers so that both the customer and the utility are in a win-win situation.

January 20, 2012

Financing Cost - Ways to reduce the cost of financing energy delivered to customers

Utilities are in a business where traditionally utility purchases the energy and then supplies it to the customer. Customer energy consumption is measured and at the end of the billing period, a bill is generated and sent to the customer. This means that the utility provides energy to the customer on credit basis and the credit is settled once the payment is received from customer. So the Utility finances the purchase of energy till payment is received. The goes through a cycle of financing peaks on a periodic basis and during cold winters or hot summers the financing peak increases due to increase in energy consumption.

There are multiple ways Utility can try to control the financing peaks, and here are some of them.

1. Billing Sooner -  Reducing the time between billing end date and the time bill is generated and sent to the customer.

2. Billing more frequently - Some utilities bill their customers monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly or even half-yearly and yearly. With increasing in number of days in a billing period, the financing cost increases. So billing more frequently would reduce the billing days and thus decrease the financing cost. But there has to be a balance between the reduction in financing cost with the increase in cost due to 
a) additional meter reading required to bill
b) sending out additional invoice to customer (material cost and delivery cost)
c) acceptance or opposition from customer to pay frequently

3. Pre-paid billing - This is the best option for utilities. There is absolutely zero financing from the Utility for the energy used. But on the other hand it is customer who is financing the energy for themself. 
In this case utility has an option to pass on the benefit to the customer through better rate.

4. Reducing payment time - Trying to get payment as soon as possible.
a) Reduce the payment due date
b) Provide incentives to make payment earlier
c) Provide multiple channels (more online channels) to make payment
d) Take payment in advance, typically implemented for large commercial customers and settlement is done every billing cycle before the new bill is sent out to the customer.

January 4, 2012

"Delivering a Smarter Customer Experience" - The Next Generation Customer Self-Service

"Imagine the scenario, John is a utility customer, every month when he gets his electronic utility bill by email, he logs onto his utility account, checks the bill details, verifies the bill, and analyzes the factors impacting the charges. He then makes his online payment.

On a stormy night when there is an unscheduled outage, he immediately gets an update on his smart phone providing the outage details. Within a few minutes he gets a tweet from the utility field crew with an update on the restoration status and estimated resumption of service. The power is restored as communicated.

John gets a Facebook status update from his Utility Company requesting his opinion on a new tariff plan. John checks out the details of the tariff plan, logs on to his utility account and performs an online rate analysis to determine the savings based on his consumption pattern - it looks beneficial. He changes his tariff plan online and gets a confirmation of the action. John provides his comments on the new tariff plan and posts it to Facebook and his Twitter account. 

Ann, another utility customer, and John's neighbor reads his comments, and investigates the new tariff plan. She logs onto the utility portal, and accesses the new usage analysis tool which she uses to monitor her consumption during peak hours. She checks out the new tariff plan and signs up as well."

The rise of the digital consumer fuelled by the omnipresent nature of smartphones, tablet PC's, converged devices, supported by evolution of Smart Grid and appetite for social media, is driving utilities across the world to implement self-service strategies or review existing implementations. 

As almost every household is a customer for the utility, the utility's self-service portal is exposed to a wide range of user personas by age, education, profession, ethnicity, gender, internet exposure, etc. Taking into consideration the above facts, some of the top strategies to consider when building the "next generation" self-service portal are based around the following aspects: design, content, access and functionality.

Next-Generation Self-Service Portal.png

With the technology and customer behavior shift, the next generation Self-service will grow from a "Bill Presentment and Payment" portal to be "Personal Account Representative". Utility now needs to make best use of this to translate the experience from 'customer self-service' to 'customer engagement' to realize their business benefits.

October 9, 2011

Key Take Aways from FOCUS 2011 - Consumer Engagement

Two weeks back, we ran a series of live blog posts from the Itron User Conference (FOCUS 2011). While the posts(Day 1, Day 2, Day 3) highlighted the key proceedings from the event, I plan to share some key take-aways for me from the conference.

There were several interesting and insightful sessions offered thru key notes, panel discussions and presentations. Several leading Utilities shared their perspective on the AMI implementations and their Smart Grid journey including the lessons learned in the process.

786_1.jpgHere are some key take aways from the leading Utilities on their consumer outlook on AMI programs:

1. Walk before you Run: There was an unanimous agreement in multiple sessions that a phase-wise step-by-step roll out of AMI is essential for success. Trying to do too many things at the same time has not yielded results and has delayed many a roll outs. Utilities who have been careful in leveraging the technology with a lot of patience have had relatively higher degree of success in the roll outs.

2. Communicate to the Consumers: At every stage of the program, Utilities need to set expectations with consumers in the right context. It is not about the technology, it is about the process and the associated benefits.

3. Demystify the Truth: In this age of information overflow and digital lifestyle, a small group of extremely vocal cynics can create a huge level of public outcry against technologies like AMI and Smart Grid. This is already visible in several parts of the world. Utilities need to use the same channels (Websites/ Blogs/ You Tube/ Twitter/ facebook/ Other social media platforms) to demystify the truth behind these rumours. In other words, Utilities need to put their Ph.D. holders at work who believe in the technology and who can share the scientific facts with the general public in these channels.

4. Recognize the WIIFM channel: A senior executive from one of the progressive Utilities jokingly said in a panel discussion that his organization realized early on that the most popular FM channel in their territory - WIIFM. Consumers want to know "What is In It For Me (WIIFM) "!. Every consumer wants to know what value he/ she can derive out of this and the Utilities need to address this question.

5. English Please : A lot of positive discussion around AMI/ Smart Grid available in the public domain is technical and full of jargon. It is safe to assume that a large portion of  it is not intended to address concerns of the general audience. At the same time, the negative publicists use plain and simple English to spread their message. Utilities need to adopt a counter strategy to this and communicate in simple English what the AMI/ Smart Grid programs mean to an end consumer.

It was a great gathering of industry leaders and vendors. Thank you, Itron, for putting together yet another great conference.



September 28, 2011

Redefining "Smart Grid"

Smart grid is a term that has been incessantly bandied around for more than 5 years. The origins of this abundantly used term date to at least 2005, when the article "Toward A Smart Grid", authored by S. Massoud Amin and Bruce F. Wollenberg appeared in the September/October issue of IEEE P&E Magazine. Since then, every consultant, operations technologist and information technologist has been slinging around this word with relentless fervor, ad nauseam.

337_1.jpgAs we pass the fifth anniversary, an anniversary traditionally marked with gifts of silver or wood, we will instead explore redefining this term for a new era of smart grid. There are five main points of the re-defined smart grid, unheralded in the first iteration.

Shift from smart meter to smart grid, the enablement of the microgrid

  • The original envisioning of smart grid included a costly overhaul of infrastructure, digital enablement of existing assets and incorporation of new technology. After the costly investment into AMI, the push for infrastructure has slowed due to cost recovery. The focus on end-to-end technology enablement has lead to limited microgrids. The vision of smart grid will take the form of localized generation, energy storage and loads that are better facilitated and returns measured.

Growth of universal solutions and mid-market

  • The major investor owned utilities (and select visionary smaller utilities) paved the way with regard to smart grid rollouts and pilots. These utilities created the business case and have showcased both the upside and pitfalls of smart grid. Now armed with knowledge, smaller municipalities, co-ops and mid-market utilities will deploy scaled pilots to provide benefits across the majority of the market. With the growth of this market, there will be a demand for scalable technology solutions with limited capital investment that can be spread across a smaller rate paying population.

Importance of secure communication infrastructure

  • Again the most important aspect of the utilities landscape is providing reliable power. This reliability is hinged on not only providing service but also providing reliability through security at the device, home area network and back-haul network. As smaller and mid-market utilities, as well as larger investor owned utilities, face these challenges a large portion of the next stage of smart grid will focus on compliance and strength.

Responsibility of the full spectrum of premises as opposed to the home

  • The first vision of smart grid was sold as a consumer enablement. Realistically, the future of smart grid focuses on the commercial customer as opposed to the home. Management of the home utility network has limited returns while commercial consumption not only creates returns that hit the P/L but can create focused opportunities for utilities to focus on grid health and load management. Demand response has already created

Simplifying operations management

  • Prior to the recent technology push, operations professionals relied on tried and true practices that spanned nearly 100 years. With the availability of sensor arrays, load management tools, outage management software and digitized assets at the premise level, operations professionals are bombarded by complicated interfaces and valuable information. For any of these professionals to do their job, they require integrated, real-time dashboards to drive real-time business decisions. The future of distribution automation and the self-healing network relies on real-time decision making.

The future of smart grid looks but bright, but is hinged on significantly different values than the smart grid of 2005.

September 17, 2011

SmartGrid 2.0 - How Smart Apps and Devices, 4G transform Utilities?

Please welcome our newest blogger to the Smart Utilities team, Deepak Pelluru. 51480.jpgDeepak's first blog centers around the next generation of Smart Grid and the impact of smart devices and communication infrastructure on the traditional utility.

SmartGrid 2.0 - How Smart Apps and Devices, 4G transform Utilities?

By Deepak Pelluru

SmartGrid is the buzzword in the utility firms across the world which purportedly yields magical results such as ability to predict energy consumption patterns for effective load balancing of power supply based on the demand, bi-directional communication between consumers and utilities for optimizing the peak time demands, demand response from the consumer side, providing visibility and analytics to the end consumers about the power consumption by their devices etc. All the above result in preventing black outs, creating energy efficiencies, cutting down carbon emissions etc

Even as SmartGrid is being acknowledged as the 'way to go' for most traditional utilities, there is already the next generation i.e. SmartGrid 2.0 in the reckoning which is an intelligent software driven, smart device, smart equipment and topology 'aware' grid system spanning across the generation, transmission and distribution pieces of the energy supply chain.

Continue reading "SmartGrid 2.0 - How Smart Apps and Devices, 4G transform Utilities?" »

July 8, 2011

Privacy Concerns!

So this time it's the smart grid privacy concerns!

Privacy concerns are valid and affect each one of us knowingly or unintentionally. Internet search engines can track minute details of a user behavior and smart phone applications can track real-time physical location of their subscribers. Social networking sites allow us to post our personal details to share with a few friends but it can profile the users based on their web-behavior and this information is in great demand for targeted advertising!

Customers have a choice; either completely isolate themselves from sharing personal information or take the risk and trust the service providers that the personal information may not be compromised. On the other hand service providers shoulder the huge responsibility of not betraying this trust. With Smart Grid, individual behavior can be monitored 24x7 based on the flow of energy into a home. This time the exposure is higher and also camouflaged, compared to voluntary data sharing on internet or owning a smart mobile device.

"Privacy by Design" or "Embedded Privacy" are good ideas but require tremendous political will to be fully implemented. There is a need to create legal frameworks around collection, application and destruction of personal information, and with data being received at the rate of exabytes per hour, how this framework can be applied will remain a challenge in coming days.

However as smart grid rolls out from AMR to Plug-in Hybrids, privacy concerns need to be addressed while building data governance frameworks at individual projects as well as enterprise wide level.

 Also, there could be several technology solutions for handling data privacy at each stage; one of them happens to be the Infosys MaskIT. Static or Dynamic data can be masked at source (meters, appliances, plug-in cars, billing engines) and be read only by specific applications necessary for business decision making for a Utility.

This solution has been successfully implemented for Banking/Finance industry and can be leveraged for the smart utilities.

June 1, 2011

Smart Grid: What it means to the customers?

Smart Grid is considered as a large program for benefit of utilities as well as for the customers. However majority of the customers are finding it either too heavy to digest or something which will have adverse affect to the rates. Customer's apprehensions such as cost recovery of investment through the new service offerings or health hazards due to smart meter communication technologies etc., are most common.

Continue reading "Smart Grid: What it means to the customers?" »

May 24, 2011

Live Blogging CS Week- Car Giveaway

Come by the Infosys booth at CS Week 2011 for the opportunity to enter into the raffle for the Mitsubishi Eclipse.



Infosys is a sponsor of the Mitsubishi Eclipse to be raflled at the end of CS Week

The drawing will be held Thursday, May 26, 2011 during the General Session.
Drawing open to utility employees only. Must be present to win.
Please read official terms and conditions.

Also, while at the booth, preview the Infosys Smart Customer Experience! All participants will be automatically entered into a raffle for an iPad.


Live Blogging from CS Week Day 2-Post 2

Per Infosys' Sanjeev Bode at CS Week 2011:

We experienced our first wave of folks to the booth for Day 2 (See pictures below)


CS_Week4.jpgGreg Kramer(left) talks to a booth visitor, while the booth is packed with other interested visitors 


CS_Week_3.jpgThe Infosys booth overflowed with interested utility executives interested in viewing Smart Integrator, Smart Customer Portal and Demand Side Management demos


CS_Week_2.pngSanjeev Bode (far right) and David Shin (middle) discuss the benefits of about Infosys Customer Service solutions with a CS Week attendee

Live Blogging from CS Week Day 2

Per Infosys' Sanjeev Bode on the second day of CS Week 2011:

Good Morning Gentlemen,

The conference is just starting - people have started to trickle into the booth area for lunch. Some of our Clients are still stuck at airports across the country owing to bad weather.

Our hearts go out to the folks in Joplin, MO who were devastated  because of the tornado.

I want to start my blogging in a different style - with pictures. After all a picture is worth a 1000 words !!!

Here is the first one: 

CS_Week_2011.jpgInfosys Utilities Team on the second day of CS Week 2011

May 23, 2011

Live Blogging from CS Week Day 1

As we move into the second day of CS Week 2011, I wanted to capture the thoughts of our event attendees on the ground in Orlando from Day 1. We will be submitting live blogs throughout the week, through the eyes of Infosys.

Padhy.jpgA few observations from Infosys' Uma Shankar Padhy:

      • We had a great 1st day at CS Week 35 conference today. The turnout is fantastic and the Gaylord Palms Orlando is an exciting place to be this week!
      • Over 500 Utilities are participating in CS Week conference this year and we have seen many come by our booth over the last few hours. I saw many first time attendees this year both from Utilities and Product/Service providers. The talk of the show is legacy CIS replacement and accomodating Customer Service iniatitives through modern CIS systems. 
      • Our booth is strategically positioned near the bar that helped a lot to get more traffic to our booth on the very 1st day! That always helps!
      • Subho and Venkat were busy the entire day showing demos of Infosys Smart Customer Portal, Infosys Demand Side Management and Infosys Smart Integrator solution..
      • We are expecting a lot of traffic over the next couple of days and we look forward to seeing you at the show. Again the iPad raffle will occur on the last day so stop by for a demo to register!

May 20, 2011

Plug-in Electric Vehicles (PEV) readiness

"Who killed the electric car?" and "Revenge of the Electric car" are two documentary feature films by Chris Paine. Whether it is revenge of the electric car or not they are fast coming into the market. Several national and local governments have established Tax credits, subsidies and other incentives to promote the introduction and adoption in the mass market of plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) depending on battery size and their all-electric range. Almost every automobile manufacturer is releasing PEV. Now whether utilities are interested or not they have to get ready for it and they have critical role to play in the success of PEV. They cannot control the customers buying PEV and their charging patterns, all they can do is be prepared for it.
The best way to manage this would be to design new rates to attract customers to charge during the off peak hours. As much as possible utilities would like them to charge between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM. Utilities and regulatory are working on coming up with new rate plan for PEV.  Some utilities are also designing experimental flat rates. Utilities are preparing to have new plans and get the installations done for the PEV. Some utilities are installing special meter for PEV and some are trying to manage with new rate on the same meter. There are different types of chargers that would be available in the market. Depending on the charger levels (level 1, 2 and 3) the load and time to charge would change.

Early adopters would most likely be (wealthy people or risk takers) living in same area, causing cluster issues in early stages. Therefore, utilities must first ensure they're prepared on a more localized level rather than the bulk load. While new rates are being designed to attract customers to charge during off peak hours utilities can never control when a PEV is being plugged for charging. Early adopters might not care that much for the cost either initially. They might end up charging during peak hours.

The first step is ensuring the transformers can handle the extra load. Utilities implementing AMI could benefit from transformer monitoring by totaling the meter data of customers being served by the transformer. While this is to be done at the system level in long run to identify the overloaded transformers and taken action. Immediate short term option would be to check the transformer loading against existing data and forecasting the load with inclusion of PEV charge station (depending on the level) in the areas where PEV charge station is being deployed or a customer is being put into PEV rate. This can help utilities to avoid any transformer overloading issue initially. Since this is PEV is new for the grid, utilities are very cautious about not getting into news for any wrong reasons.

There are solutions available for identifying the transformer loading system wide and plotting them on the GIS map. Smart integrator is one such solution that can be plugged in by utilities to help them with transformer load management beyond PEV.

CS week 35 has a workshop on EV readiness let us wait to see what we get to learn.

May 19, 2011

Meter Data Management System: What to look for

Majority of the utilities are currently focusing on setting up AMI infrastructure for meeting regulatory requirements, green power initiatives and other business benefits.
AMI meters are being rapidly deployed and data is being collected, but utilities did not really start realizing the benefits of collected data and other AMI capabilities to remotely perform transactions apart from just getting the monthly billing read. Initially billing might be interested in the data but gradually other groups with the organization would demand for the data. The key to successful AMI implementation is to leverage the value of meter data. The primary interface for any large scale AMI system is the Meter Data Management Systems (MDMS), and the MDMS forms an integral part of AMI.
Meter Data Management System (MDMS) is used as common repository for AMI meter data and its suite of applications are used for variety of analysis and help in realizing the business benefits by integrating with other utility systems. MDMs is also looked as single interface for all the utility system to communicate with AMI.

While evaluating for such an important system, the following have to be considered:

•MDM integration with utility applications should be vendor agnostic. MDM should manage the integration with AMI and when an new AMI system or technology is brought in the system needs to be integrated only with MDM

•Identifying the attributes to be maintained in MDM is critical. You will need to maintain some entities from CIS and need to be very cautious about what you want to maintain in MDM and define the system based on your business needs. People in the team should understand the expectation and not think of it as CIS replacement. As much as possible meter related information have to be maintained

•Performance of MDM is another critical aspect. You should have right expectations from the beginning on performance in terms of loading the data and cleansing the data.

•Reporting is critical feature. So much of data is being maintained to make good use of the data in other business application or process. It is very important to have flexibility in reporting data out of MDM.

•Identifying right business services (ex: Connect, Disconnect, On Request Read, Meter Program change, Billing Read Request, Demand Reset) that are needed

These are some of the basics that you need to be aware of. It is very important to do system appreciation and do the right requirements to meet your business needs.

May 16, 2011

Underrated Customer Service Benefits of AMI

In my previous life I sold AMI systems to a utilities.  After the one utility in particular had bought the system I asked the CEO why he needed the AMI system.  It was not obvious to me that he could save lots of money in meter reading as his territory was fairly dense and his cost of meter reading was not very high. This utility was a midsized utility.  He asked me to go with him to the lobby and he pointed out to whole bunch of people sitting in the lobby.  He said all these people clogging up my lobby have billing questions and they think we are cheating them because they don't understand cycle day billing no matter how many times we have explained them.  Sometimes they get the bills for 33/34 days and other times they get bills for 25/26 days and this difference can be huge depending upon the weather.  

He mentioned this hassle alone is big enough for him to justify AMI system which will not only reduce his customer service cost but more importantly improve his customer satisfaction.  In the next blogs, I will discuss many other customer service benefits.

May 4, 2011

What is the profile of the "smart grid consumer"?

The end goal of smart grid is to assemble an intelligent infrastructure that allows both the utility and the consumer to make smarter energy decisions. The first phase of deployment mainly focused on the provisioning of advanced metering, with a more focused upside for the utility (meter reading savings, turn-on, turn-off, etc). As a result of many of the metering pilots, utilities have discovered that adoption by the consumer is crucial. That being said, how well do we know the "smart grid consumer"?

Continue reading "What is the profile of the "smart grid consumer"?" »

April 13, 2011

The Smart Grid Customer Experience Mandate

Analytical Framework - CRM Strategy

In a previous blog, I introduced the following Customer Experience Management Analytical Framework that Infosys recommends for articulating the Smart Grid value proposition for energy consumers

:CEM.png Infosys believes that Utilities must articulate segment-specific value propositions for its customers to increase consumer acceptance of new AMI and Smart Grid services, and also to reduce the risk of regulators not approving AMI and Smart Grid investments because of consumer pushback.

Continue reading " The Smart Grid Customer Experience Mandate" »

March 18, 2011

GIS as an imperative for a smart Grid

Geographic Information System (GIS) serves two critical purposes beyond what an enterprise asset management (EAM) tool can provide. These two are: spatial location and network connectivity. Whereas EAM owns the physical characteristics of an asset, the needs of a Smart Grid can only be met when GIS and EAM sync together.

From an automation perspective, EMS, DMS, OMS or Substation SCADA can subscribe to the network connectivity built within a GIS. A single spatial data model could form the backbone for managing the operations of the entire grid. GIS typically would be the repository of the "as-built". Real time changes brought about by day-to-day operations shall remain within the smart systems meant for automation until they become permanent changes or as-built.

Implementing this backbone of information flow goes beyond the T&D operations into Customer Service (CS) and Power Procurement (PP). A customer service representative who receives a call from a customer on an individual outage can in real-time view the network issue that caused the outage on a map. Also hovering over the issue on the map the representative can view EAM data describing the work-order with status and expected time of completion.

PP can leverage the combination of GIS and EMS to find the capacity margins of each Transmission circuit for monthly, daily or hourly power scheduling. GIS will have the as-built capacity information for each transmission line and EMS would supplement this with the current load and available margins.

GIS can tie all protection devices - transducers, measuring devices, control circuitry and relays to their geographic location in a substation. Critical equipment drawings and inspection videos could be stored or hyperlinked against the asset representation on a map.

This list can go on, but the message that I'd like to convey is that GIS-EAM together become a complete repository of asset information and have a foundational role to play in building the smart grid information infrastructure.

The following picture was part of a paper-presentation we did at DistribuTECH conference in 2009. It visually depicts the value-impact of GIS across the utility value chain:


January 12, 2011

Price Sensitive Residential Demand Response : Reality check

Demand Response is termed as one of the killer application in Smart Grid roadmaps. The hope is that with penetration of smart appliances, HAN and Smart meters the customers will start participating in the grid operations by dynamically adjusting their pattern of energy usage based on the grid conditions. One of the argument is that residential customers will receive real-time price signal and will bid in to the price sensitive demand response programs. But how much of that is going to be reality. I would say it is a long shot. The price sensitive demand response in the residential customer segment may take a while before it becomes reality. There are several roadblocks, to name few:

  • With incresed use of energy efficient appliances the consumption will go down and the amount of incentive to participate in the demand response programs may not be lucrative to residential customers.
  • In order to make price sensitive demand response lucrative to the residential customers, there needs to be change in the tariff structure which will have to follow the real-time energy prices in order to make an positive impact on the grid operations.
  • The network infrastructure needs to support the communication of the price and DR signals to thousands of residential customers (customers who are enrolled in to the DR programs), which may overlaod the grid communications networks. One of the option talked about is the AMI communication network but more and more AMI networks becoming operational the industry is seeing actual problems with the already stressed out AMI communication infrastructure. DR being the mission critical application the network latency can not be ignored.
  • Secuirty is another biggest issue with price sensitive residential demand response programs because unline commercial and industrial DR customers who can afford to invest in the secure Building Energy management systems, expecting residential customers to have same level of awareness and security in place is not fair.

Then there are technical challenges in terms of real-time DR load monitoring and the maturity of protocols for the price sensitive demand response which can cater to the bandwidth needs for the residential DR. Network latency I already mentioned. Then there will be optimization problems with respect to dynamic load behaviour where the entire supply chain from generation to transmission to distribution to customer participation will have to be optimized.


In conclusion I would like to say that the concept is good and very promising but it will take a while before we start seeing price senstive demand response in reality in the residential customer segment.

January 6, 2011

Smart Grid : Are your customers ready?

Smart Grid is a major transformation where utilities are revamping infrastructure, bringing automation and increasing reliability. This transformation is leading towards redefinition of business processes to achieve maximum operational benefits which have direct or indirect impact to the customers.

Continue reading "Smart Grid : Are your customers ready?" »

December 14, 2010

Information Management

Today we will talk about information management - a much required capability that utilities need to carefully evaluate as they go through Smart Grid deployment.

What is Information Management? Simply put information management is not just about technology but is about managing and leveraging information.

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December 2, 2010

The SmartGrid Challenge: Create Smart Consumers

SmartGrid sounds so modern, so exciting, and so cool - like... umm... say lightsabers. So how can consumers not get excited?

Well, for one, consumers take electricity for granted. So it is difficult to get them excited about conservation of electricity in any form. No one wakes up and pledges to save 5 kWh through the course of the day. And to be fair, we can't expect them either. Electricity consumption is "habitual" in nature and we cannot expect consumers to change that overnight. And then who likes to pay bills? And here we are talking about possibly increased bills. Not to mention that the definition of a SmartGrid would leave even the smartest people scratching their heads.

Continue reading "The SmartGrid Challenge: Create Smart Consumers" »

November 29, 2010

The Smart Customer Experience Mandate

Articulating the Smart Grid Value Proposition for Energy Consumers

Consumer Concerns about Smart Grid Technologies

In some parts of the U.S. energy consumers are pushing back on utilities' planned or actual rollout of Smart Meters for residential and small commercial customers (i.e. energy consumers). Consumers in northern California complained earlier this year about meter accuracy and high bills after PG&E installed Smart Meters in portions of its service territory. PG&E and the California Public Utility Commission had to hire an expensive consultant to verify PG&E's Smart Meter accuracy and the soundness of its billing practices in order to address consumer complaints and to restore (at least partially) consumer confidence in its Smart grid investments.

Continue reading "The Smart Customer Experience Mandate" »