When gas, water and electricity usage can be monitored, measured and managed collectively in one cohesive framework, utilities can improve conservation, help their customers save money, reduce administrative costs and better prepare for increased demand from population and/or industrial growth. But that's not the case today at most utilities.
Utilities that manage multiple resources, such as gas, water, waste water and electricity, typically manage these resources in separate divisions. They may each have their own infrastructure, pricing, service teams, billing, management systems and more. This segregation of systems is not only inefficient from administrative and operational perspectives, but also hamstrings customer service.
According to recent research by Nielsen Inc. 1, 65 percent of consumers are interested in accessing daily and hourly usage data from smart meters. Far from viewing these as separate systems, consumers are in fact demanding a single view of their consumption of resources.
However, the fragmentation of gas, water and electricity systems makes it extremely challenging to provide customers with a single application to view resource usage. Segmentation of data also makes it much more difficult for utilities to efficiently manage these resources cohesively or make swift, data-driven decisions.
Employing an integrated approach to energy management is the ideal strategy for overcoming these challenges. In fact, an emerging set of technologies are being deployed by leading utilities to residential and commercial customers that provide a single view of water, gas and electricity cost and usage on a single platform. These solutions work by "gluing" existing legacy systems together, streamlining energy and demand side management programs and providing customers with what they want: a single, consolidated view of their consumption. The operational cost savings alone in this unified approach is highly compelling -- not to mention improvements in customer satisfaction and engagement in conservation.
Smaller rural and/or cooperatively owned utilities are uniquely positioned to benefit from these changes. At a basic level, they are much more likely than their larger metropolitan brethren to be the sole-source provider for gas, water and electricity in their particular coverage area, thereby making this unification feasible. Since they are owned by their customers, co-op and municipalities are focused first on customer cost savings rather than profitability, which aligns well with the efficiency improvements derived from unification.
Getting started is easier than a utility may think too. From a cost perspective, energy providers can choose to tie existing legacy systems together. After all, anything that requires a wholesale "rip and replace" approach is likely to be too expensive and disruptive to get off the ground.
Utility decision makers should start by looking for software that is modular, standards-based, and device "agnostic" -- allowing them to leverage their existing infrastructure and implement each component on a phased basis. With this strategy, utilities can 1) save money by extending previous technology investments, 2) reduce administrative and customer service workload, 3) incorporate proven new technologies as they emerge, and 4) significantly reduce roll out time and complexity.
By following these and other proven tips, energy providers can quickly be on their way toward unifcation, where broad, long-term energy efficient practices can be adopted by utilities and their customers.
1. ESource and Nielsen Energy. Customers Want Smart Meter Data and Are Willing to Pay For It. June 2011. http://www.esource.com/esource/getpub/public/pdf/press_releases/ESource-...