A Modernized Grid Delivers Value

Itron encourages utilities to take advantage of the significant advances in technology.
Published: Fri 05 Sep 2014

Central to Itron’s strategy is its focus on delivering new and distinctive business value and outcomes through software and services to utilities worldwide, says Jeff Carkhuff, Itron’s vice president of global product management for electricity, who will be attending the upcoming European Utility Week.

In an exclusive interview with Engerati, Carkhuff said that Itron’s recent announcement with Utilita, a UK supplier of prepayment solutions, is a good example of this strategy at work. With the Utilita managed services deal, Itron is leveraging its proven technology and global experience in key prepayment electricity metering to deliver a suite of service-based solutions to a prepayment services provider in the UK. Currently, 15 million end-customers worldwide rely on Itron’s prepayment technology to help them manage their energy consumption and costs.

Carkhuff explains, “With this approach, Itron can apply its knowledge and experience in prepayment solutions (metering, data management, etc.) so Utilita can focus on its customer relationships without worrying about the management of prepayment backend operations. We see this as an increasingly attractive model and readily applicable to other areas of utility operations for several key markets around the world.”

Solutions to help smaller energy suppliers prosper

For those markets where retailers compete for customers, managed services and cloud solutions make a lot of sense to increase speed to market and time to value, explains Carkhuff. These solutions also provide the ability to scale quicker without adding significant IT resources or costs to operations. This applies equally well to smaller utilities in more traditional and regulated markets.

“Often these utilities don’t have the extensive IT resources to ramp up new programs that require significant IT investments and systems integration,” he said. “Managed services and cloud solutions – whether for smart metering, prepayment, revenue assurance or distribution system analytics – can provide a low-risk, highly flexible and secure solution approach for any utility of any size.”

Addressing an industry in transition

In the US and Asian markets, Carkhuff points out that there is a clear trend towards the adoption of multi-application networks, which are based on open standards and protocols such as IPv6, the standard for the rapidly emerging Internet of Things. The reason for this is because a real smart grid requires not only smart meters, but other grid devices, assets and applications to interoperate, communicate and make operational decisions at the “edge” of the network.

To achieve this integration, communication networks, that operate like enterprise IT networks, are critical to an intelligent grid. In addition, open standards enable the cost of network infrastructure to be spread out over a wider array of applications, creating a broader value stream that dramatically improves the cost of ownership over the system’s life time, explains Carkhuff.

“The modernized grid of the 21st century will encompass a continually expanding portfolio of devices and applications that must function in coordination with each other to deliver the value and outcomes envisioned,” says Carkhuff.

For utilities that have yet to adopt standards in support of their smart metering and smart grid initiatives, Itron believes that IP-based network standards and architecture, coupled with highly flexible and resilient communications, represent the optimal combination of near-term suitability and future flexibility as business requirements change for utilities across Europe. Together, these standards will simplify adoption and deployment and optimize total cost of ownership, while greatly mitigating technical risk for smart metering and smart grid deployments.

He adds, “Itron believes that for utilities and countries in Europe that have not yet committed to a particular technology direction or meter specification, there’s a strong opportunity for them to take advantage of advances in technology and network architecture to support not only smart metering requirements but the smart grid as well.”

A secure cloud platform

Worldwide, utilities are also re-evaluating which systems and operations they must keep in-house, outsource or move to the cloud. Carkhuff points out that it wasn’t all that long ago when utilities would consider moving only back office financial and customer information systems to the cloud. “Today, we see some promising middle ground in which there’s significant opportunity for new value creation in smart grid-related analytic application domains, such as network operations, revenue assurance, prepayment, distribution asset monitoring, outage analysis and system design,” says Carkhuff.

As for cloud security, it’s a never ending effort to stay ahead of threats. However, with a best practices and multi-layer approach to security, and highly capable partners such as Microsoft, Itron’s customers can place a high degree of confidence and trust in their ability to protect them and their customers.

Coping with big data

The utility industry has focused thus far on innovating and developing technology to gather data and apply it to transform billing and revenue cycle services. The challenge now is to manage it effectively in order to drive better operating and business decisions, particularly with respect to energy delivery.

Increasingly, the industry is moving toward modernizing utility infrastructure by supporting multiple applications and interconnected smart devices beyond meters. With more smart devices, including meters, sensors, distribution automation devices and smart thermostats for consumers, utilities will collect information about the distribution system and energy consumption like never before. As a result, utilities will have to contend with massive amounts of data.

Systems are now in place to manage the data, but the bigger challenge is applying analytics specifically suited to their key business challenges and making those analytics available in a timely manner to inform grid operations and assist in decision making.

Energy efficiency and demand-response targeting, revenue protection, voltage optimization, distribution-asset monitoring (transformer loading) and demand forecasting are among the areas where utilities are experiencing the most success when applying analytics.

Some big data analysis is fairly straightforward. For example, interval data gives utilities great insight into demand forecasting and where to shed load. In other cases, the data needs to be combined with other data sets and deeper analysis. For instance, a meter-tamper alert by itself may not be that useful, but when combined with load data, transformer metering, account-billing history and utility field service dispatch information, it can enable utilities to identify potential cases of energy theft with much more precision and they can target investigative resources accordingly.

Itron is also bringing intelligence and analysis to the edge. Leveraging peer-to-peer communications and real-time sensing, Itron smart meters can deliver on a number of grid operational benefits that cannot be fully realized with only back-office analytics. A few examples include improved theft bypass detection, improved outage and restoration insights, and fault detection.

Utilities are challenged with finding the best approach to big data and analytics. A “big-bang” enterprise approach can be costly and time-consuming, and applications may not have knowledge of utility business processes baked in yet, explains Carkhuff.

He says, “In terms of time-to-value, a more focused analytics solution that is “pre-integrated platform” with meter data management systems and addresses specific utility-business problems is likely the more efficient route to value and results.”

In conclusion

Carkhuff says that Itron will be demonstrating new communications and edge intelligence capabilities at European Utility Week for their global OpenWay smart grid platform. Carkhuff believes it will be a “game changer” for the industry.

“We’re looking forward to sharing this technology with our utility customers and collaborating on how we can best apply it to address their challenges and create new business value.”