Driving Utility Business Applications With Data

Subscription-based software as a service offers analytics solutions harvesting real-time data.
Published: Thu 23 Oct 2014

New entrants are making waves in the energy industry of today, with the opportunities opened up by the smart grid and the growing involvement of consumers in the Internet of Things. So when the Silicon Valley data analytics startup, AutoGrid, was named a transformational technology pioneer for 2015 by the World Economic Forum, Engerati’s curiosity was piqued. [Engerati-Energy And Technology Pioneers – Ten Companies To Watch In 2015]

A pure software player

“Our core value proposition is to provide the software platform that lets utilities harvest new streams of smart meter and other data coming into their fold, with the purpose of driving compelling business applications,” explains the company’s vice president of product management and marketing Raj Pai.

AutoGrid was founded in 2011 and in just over three years has carved an enviable niche in the ‘Big Data’ space. “A pure software player,” as Pai describes the company, it has developed partnerships with smart grid device and AMI vendors in the sector, and is working with a dozen or so utilities across the world. Among these are Austin Energy and Oklahoma Gas and Electric, and the global energy giant E.ON, which in January indicated its faith in the company with investment in its latest funding round.

This in turn has led to growing interest in the company’s products in Europe, and AutoGrid plans to open an office in the region – probably in either Germany or the Netherlands – in the coming months.

The company has also attracted support from the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E), with funding to develop in partnership with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Columbia University, its real-time Demand Response Optimization and Management System. [Engerati-New Real-Time Demand Response Coming To Millions]

The AutoGrid difference

Pai believes the AutoGrid “difference” is driven by two factors.

“One is on the big data crunching side. We can handle the large volumes of data coming into utilities. The second is how we harvest that data on a real-time or near real-time basis to provide highly accurate forecasts of individual customer demand for today’s modern grid.”

Typically such data includes utility data such as meter data combined with third party data such as weather information.

“We can use all of this to make accurate forecasts very quickly. We give the demand forecast back to the utility and they can then leverage that for their own purposes such as demand response, revenue assurance, trading applications for balancing supply/demand, and so on.”

In June, a benchmark was achieved of forecasting for over one million endpoints every 10 minutes.

Another point is that AutoGrid supplies its software and cloud infrastructure on a ‘subscription as a service’ basis, enabling it to be implemented very rapidly without the typical lengthy deployment of hardware and software on premise for utility projects. For example, a demand response program for commercial customers was implemented at City of Palo Alto Utilities in under 30 days, compared with the months an in-house implementation would have taken.

Data analytics applications

AutoGrid’s first application on its Energy Data platform enables electricity providers and consumers of all sizes to forecast generation, consumption and other grid conditions.

“We are seeing a lot of demand for demand response in the US,” comments Pai. “We are seeing demand for revenue assurance or non-technical loss analysis in Europe and some of the countries in which E.ON operates. We are also seeing big data forecasting interest, and trends leading to a near real-time usage of data streaming in from smart meters, grid sensors and devices.

“In new areas of emerging interest, we are getting involved in software for behind the meter storage, especially for solar cells – this is cutting edge.”

Barriers to data analytics

Despite the evident benefits to be gained from the analysis of grid data there is still a slowness in uptake and a level of uncertainty in the market. [Engerati-Utilities Uncertain about Big Data Analytics]

Pai attributes this to three factors. “The first one is that there is a silo problem from an organization perspective. Utility personnel work in defined groups and so that becomes a challenge to fully utilize the value of the data.

“Secondly, looking at it from the technology perspective, organizations have not been equipped in the past to collect all of this data and pull it together to impact business processes. For example, meter data is collected in one silo and it is typically not connected with the customer information data sitting in a billing system. So there is a data integration issue which is critical to provide a holistic view.

“And thirdly, and I think most importantly, are the business drivers for our customers. Utilities are mostly influenced by regulation and they are very slow moving until there is something to drive them to make a change. But that is now changing very fast as the end customer is getting involved. For example, I can go to a retailer and get a smart thermostat, or put a solar cell on my roof and not only start consuming electricity but also start providing electricity back to the grid.  

“These are disruptions that regulators and utilities need to adapt to, and data and analytics will play a key role in driving the changes in the next 5 to 10 years.”

New data analytics products

As the data analytics space evolves so too do the products that are available, and Pai promises that several new products will be becoming available from AutoGrid.

“We are involved in building a product with [Japanese IT company] NTT Data, which is targeted at industrial and commercial building managers, and we will be announcing this soon. For building managers, the billing tier is often based on peak consumption and so there is a vested interest in seeing they do not reach that peak in order to manage costs.

“We also have existing re-seller agreements with Silver Spring Networks and Schneider Electric and are working on building on these offerings with them and other vendors in the utility value chain. You should hear about these soon.”