Big Data for Big Change

Guest Article by: Mike Ballard, Senior Director for Utilities Strategy at Oracle EMEA
Published: Thu 14 Nov 2013

There is little doubt that utilities face a major challenge in maintaining sustained access to energy and in safeguarding its long term delivery to consumers. The requirements that a growing population is placing on the utilities infrastructure is forcing the expansion of their networks and, by consequence, a noted increase in the volume of data they must process in order to keep these operational. Add to this accelerated introduction of renewables onto the energy grid, and the limitations of most current network management systems to accommodate these changes become quite apparent.

For utilities, the key to modernizing network management systems to accommodate these conditions lies in big data, not only in collecting the vast amount of information that next generation smart grids will provide them, but also in quickly converting this into valuable network insight. 

Utility providers are catching on to this reality. According to a recent Oracle Study conducted in North America, utilities today are more prepared to manage the data deluge than ever before; with 17 per cent saying that they are completely prepared to do so, as opposed to 9 per cent in 2012 (Source: Utilities and Big Data: Accelerating the Drive to Value, Oracle 2013 ). However, significant potential still remains locked within this information, particularly as smart grids are rolled out across the EU.

Once they tap into the possibilities afforded by big data, utilities will find new ways to engage and improve service levels for their increasingly energy-conscious customers. Moreover, by combining analytics solutions with a spatial visualization tool, utility providers can profit from real-time visual data to manage their networks in real-time. Big data solutions will also help them make the most of the smart grid and take more proactive network management decisions. Of course, as they embrace new IT technologies, utility providers will also need to develop the internal expertise required to run an effective analytics infrastructure.

Getting customers more involved

Perhaps the most important innovation that big data analytics brings to utilities is the further-reaching view of their customer base that it affords them. As such, this technology is critical for providers looking to educate consumers and influence their consumption behavior. Big data analytics capabilities give utility providers the power to not only reach more customers, but also to identify those behaving outside of local norms and react fittingly. 

Customers will benefit from the analysis of smart meter data by gaining regular comprehensive insight into their energy use. With real-time consumption data displayed directly in their homes, consumers can immediately see how much energy – and therefore money – they are using and wasting by leaving their devices on ‘stand-by’ mode or by not turning off lights in unused rooms. This awareness will motivate cost-conscious customers to become more engaged with their utility providers and give them added incentive to change their energy-use behavior for the better.

The large volume of data collected from the smart grid will also enable energy companies to accurately manage their networks during periods of high and low demand, and accommodate fluctuations in usage to help conserve energy and encourage savings. These savings can then either be passed on to customers or re-invested into the grid to support further improvements.  Furthermore, because smart meter data enhances utilities’ understanding of their customers’ energy use patterns, providers can help reduce waste even further by providing bespoke offers and financial incentives to users who make efforts to moderate their consumption behavior.

Data analytics, as they apply to consumer behavior, can also help utilities improve their services to increase revenue opportunities. For example, by analyzing their customers’ usage profiles providers can then target them with specific programs that align with their individual preferences, and therefore increase the likelihood that their customers will sign up for them. Said otherwise, by giving utilities a better understanding of customer segmentation, big data analytics will help them develop special training for their employees so they can better understand customer needs. As a result, utilities will reduce the number of customer calls they receive in their call center, minimize overtime hours for employees, and boost customer satisfaction as response times are improved.

Real-time spatial analytics

In addition to helping them better engage with individual customers, big data solutions, when combined with spatial software, can also give utilities a higher level of awareness of conditions across their entire network.

Data provided by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools has traditionally been limited to as-planed static information. A network management system complemented by real-time spatial analytics extracts previously undiscovered value from the data provided by GIS tools. By outfitting themselves with an advanced geospatial data solution, working in tandem with a high-performance big data appliance, utilities can profit from unprecedented amounts of relevant real-time information to improve network performance and gain more focused and responsive system control.

The ability to superimpose networks on up-to-date road and building maps, for instance, gives utilities the foresight to plan expansions more coherently by promoting growth that circumvents existing development as opposed to building through it. Not only does this represent a more sustainable growth mentality, it also allows utility providers to devise more complete growth plans before construction, and minimize losses due to work interruptions and piecemeal forecasting.

Smarter network management

Big data analytics will also be the backbone of network management for utilities as countries within the European Union begin to roll out smart grids. As dynamic, intricately connected webs, utility networks present unique engineering and safety challenges that make them particularly complex to manage. Often troubleshooting works carried out at one point of the network may resolve a localized issue, but can redirect flow to other points on the grid and put enough pressure on these areas to cause new problems. This “moving fault” can become particularly dangerous during major weather events, which can often add to the already great pressure placed on energy networks.

The analysis of customer meters will help utilities take advantage of these widespread data points to gain a better vision of how voltage is being distributed throughout their networks. With this information, they can spot warning signs for problems before things go sour, an example of which is the “last gasp” given out by smart meters shortly before dying. To give utility providers even more control over their networks, real-time data analysis applied to smart meters can be used to develop a live visualization of network status, which they can use to spot outages more quickly and manage them more efficiently.

Once running on next generation grids, utilities will have access to more granular information on consumption than ever. Those using smart data analytics can make the most of this information by collecting and trending data from countless new metering points to drastically improve their forecasting abilities. With this knowledge, they can make more accurate predictions about future energy demand, and even overlay their data with seasonal weather trends from previous years to develop exceptionally well-founded forecasts. 

Big Data IT skills

The adoption of new big data solutions will also redefine the expertise that utilities must develop to operate their IT resources. Traditionally, the main challenge facing utilities has been to maintain the physical infrastructure of their grids, which is purely an engineering-based issue. Modern utility providers running big data solutions will discover new technical issues to deal with, most notably with regards to the collection, storage and management of the large volume of information that their networks will begin generating.

To implement a successful big data analysis system, utilities must complement their investment into analytics technologies with strong in-house IT capabilities. Today, however, many providers lack the internal capabilities required to make the most of the data they collect. In fact, while 70 per cent of respondents to Oracle’s study expect predictive analytics to improve revenue protection, and 61 per cent see it reducing asset maintenance costs, 62 per cent of utilities companies admit they have a notable big data skills gap to fill before they can see these benefits become a reality.

To meet the demands of running a 21st century smart grid, utilities will need to take on a specialist staff that can analyze vast amounts of data to develop key business insights. Given the imminent roll out of next generation grids, the skills gap must be plugged quickly. Organizations that can adapt their workforce to manage the transition effectively will be the first to benefit from smart energy networks.

The Utility of the Future

The EU is in the midst of a sea-change in terms of how energy is created, distributed, and measured. Data and data analytics are set to fundamentally transform the relationship between consumers and utility providers and drive more cost effective, sustainable energy use. Once harnessed and converted to true business insight, the information at the heart of this revolution will shed new light on consumption and network operations, and give utilities the vision they need to spearhead the drive for more intelligent energy use.