By Christine Easterfield
The customer is at the heart of every utility. Not the regulator, not the government, not even necessarily the shareholder—for without a happy customer, shareholder value is hard to sustain. With so much change happening at most utility companies, it is easy to lose sight of the impact on the customer.
We all know that it is easier to keep a customer than to acquire a new one—this holds even for utilities, where to some extent infrastructure hampers real consumer choice. But with governments and regulators promoting open competition between utility suppliers, providing a satisfying customer experience has to be high on the agenda or customers will be exercising their rights to take supply from elsewhere.
Smart grid developments have been much discussed in the last three to five years but how many of those developments are actually improving life for the customer? Let’s leave aside the smart grid activities that are literally smartening the grid itself and largely benefit the utility—tools like next generation SCADA systems for optimized network management and smart reclosers that reduce maintenance call outs—and focus on where most utilities have dipped their toes in the smart grid story—metering.
In the City of Miami, Florida, smart meters have been rolled out by the water department to provide better control of water use in public spaces. Miami has improved the management of water consumption and reduced leakage across the Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces department, anticipating savings of up to US$1 million—savings which can be reallocated to services for residents, such as after-school clubs offering homework assistance, fitness programs and even swimming lessons. Clear benefits to the consumer, if a little indirect.
San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) has 1.4 million smart meters installed in domestic and commercial properties. These work in cooperation with wireless sensors installed across the network. The sensors automatically detect outages and other problems on the electric grid and fault detectors send alarms, if a problem occurs anywhere along the power lines. Operations staff can quickly send crews to that location based on the automatic wireless signals sent by these devices. This enables the utility to respond to power outages and restore electricity to customers faster than ever before. Again clear customer benefits, but the benefit to the utility is perhaps greater.
One application at SDG&E that is more directly linked to customers is the implementation of ‘Green Button’ technology. Promoted by central government in the US, this gives timely access to energy use data. Customers can download up to 13 months of their personal electricity data, which can then be analyzed to help make choices about when and how they run appliances. Customers can also view their day-to-day account, encouraging households and businesses to monitor temperature gauges or run appliances on eco programmes, reducing peak demand for the utility and saving money for the customer.
In the UK, a three-year trial compared different approaches to improving energy efficiency—including using smart meters. This study found success increased when customers actively engaged with improved data provided by smart meters and this is borne out by live rollouts. At the simplest level, no longer being disturbed by meter readers calling to the home or the assurance that utility bills would no longer have to be estimated is benefit enough. But real savings start to be seen when feedback on consumption is readily available in short, easy to understand reports. To be actionable, feedback must be reliable and timely—which depends on the back office IT systems the utility chooses.
In Europe, there is as much variation in the level of adoption by different countries as there is between states in the USA. Italy was one of the first countries worldwide to roll out smart meters. France, Germany and the UK are well ahead in their implementation programs. These are largely driven—or certainly encouraged—by central policies of the European Union that promote energy efficiency and backed by national governments that are both keen to enhance their green credentials and to reduce reliance on energy imports.
While plowing resource into smart grid technologies, utilities must remember who is ultimately footing the bill. Improving their experience will encourage buy-in to the investment in new technologies across the network, and soften the impact of the inevitable disruptions that come with that – from service outages to simply more road works. Smart metering was/is supposed to provide the consumer with greater choice including the ability to monitor energy use appliance by appliance and choose how to manage their consumption according to the attractiveness of the tariff.
A happy customer pays their bill.
Desi Smart Grid Pointers:
GREEN BUTTON Standards are become a heart of most of the smart grid pilot across the globe. In India, there are no such initiatives focused on consumers in the ongoing smart grid pilots. However, there is an attempt being made by the India Smart Grid Forum (ISGF) to present a case to the Ministry of Power (MOP) in the recent meetings. A report titled Green Button Standards for India is available for download