United Energy and Multinet Gas, one of five electricity and gas distribution businesses in the Australian state of Victoria, is now reaping the benefits of what was a mandated electricity smart meter rollout while launching its transformation to an Internet of Things (IoT) world.
Transformation to IoT
Alistair Legge, general manager, customer and technology at United Energy and Multinet Gas, explains: “Smart meters are a great start for our transformation to an IoT world. We have robust, reliable monitoring technology at the homes and business of our customers. This technology contains powerful insights for customers as to what is going on within the premises down to a very granular level.
“The future is all about focusing on the customer and I believe the true value of IoT is in empowering customers by providing them with more information to make informed decisions. For example, in using sensor information to inform a customer that the old wine fridge in their garage costs more to operate over a few years than a new, more efficient fridge, or letting them know how energy efficient they are compared with similar customers.”
United Energy has more than 650,000 customers across part of Melbourne and the Mornington Peninsula. The company is managed together with Multinet Gas, which distributes gas to approximately 660,000 customers across Victoria.
Data analytics makes a difference
Legge says that analytics is key to utilizing the smart meter data to manage the network smarter, improve delivery of network services and provide customers with better access to their energy consumption information.
Smart metering has given United Energy much greater insight into low voltage network issues. Whereas previously the company relied on customers to phone in to inform of a network fault, now the smart meter status signals are aggregated in real-time to provide an accurate picture of a fault location.
“This allows us to provide a better customer service in terms of fault restoration. It also allows us to understand if there are ‘faults within faults’, which are a regular occurrence after storms when a feeder circuit that is down can hide the fact there are also faults on the lower level circuits.”
Legge continues that at the next level up, the half-hour meter data enables sophisticated modelling and planning on the network, which results in reduced equipment failures and being more targeted in terms of maintenance and upgrades.
“For example in the summer of 2013/14, we had a number of consecutive days when the temperature was over 40oC. We used the data from the smart meters to predict where we were likely to have transformer overloads and failures and were able to avoid these by rebalancing loads and doing a targeted campaign to households in high risk areas to reduce their demand.”
But the “really exciting analytics” comes with analysis of voltage and current data at customer level, Legge says. “This provides detailed insights into what is going on in the home. While this data is obviously sensitive and always treated as private, there are a number of benefits that can be provided to customers who want to access their own information.”
Insights for customers
During the smart meter rollout United Energy established the first customer web portal in Australia, named Energy Easy. This is aimed to enable customers to understand their electricity use more easily, make more informed energy purchasing decisions and manage their electricity costs more effectively.
More than 15,000 customers are regularly accessing information off the site, Legge says. As a result of this access also, approximately 7% of residential customers have moved to flexible network tariffs and more than 2,800 customers have requested in-home displays.
Other benefits to customers that have resulted from the rollout include more than 54,000 remote connections and disconnections in 2014 resulting in a $30 reduction in cost per transaction and overall saving of over $1.6 million, more than 5,000 remote meter reconfigurations for solar net metering saving $80 per transaction, and saving more than 2,300 unnecessary truck visits to customers’ homes saving $51-115 per truck visit.
A demand side response programme is expected to deliver capex savings for customers, and new optional capacity based tariffs for residential customers will become available from July 2015.
Utility challenges in Australia
Utilities in Australia, as elsewhere, are facing numerous challenges, Legge comments. Among these are a more empowered and actively engaged customer base, falling total consumption across the network but rising peak consumption, new customer centric and intelligent energy technologies, such as solar PV, energy storage and home energy management, increased automation and connectivity of network assets, or ‘smart grids’, and an increased focus on electricity prices resulting from national price increases.
“These change drivers are being reflected in a changing regulatory environment including government-led initiatives such as the Council of Australian Governments’ Power of Choice reforms.”
But the major change is in the nature of the electricity supply chain itself, he says. “Future capital requirements of the traditional supply chain (generation, transmission, distribution) are decreasing with capital moving to metering and customer premise (behind the meter) investments. Additionally, capital requirements are being displaced by service-based alternatives as the industry transitions from building to meet demand to actively influencing demand.
“This means that all utilities need to move their focus from tradition generation, transmission, distribution and retailing to customer assets (solar, storage, etc.) and customer engagement and services such as demand management.”
In United Energy’s case, CEO Hugh Gleeson made the decision two year ago that technology was key in the transformation of our industry to a customer focused and multi-service environment. “He took my traditional CIO role and added business innovation, revenue and customer services functions. This structural change clearly stated that we are focused on customers and see technology as an enabler to improving customer experience.”
Australian Utility Week
Looking ahead to Australian Utility Week, Legge says that the utilities’ role in servicing a new empowered customer base should be front and centre of discussions. “The industry needs to put to one side the old energy supply paradigm and ask: what is the best way for customers to receive a cost effective energy service experience?”