Smart utility infrastructure highlights from DISTRIBUTECH 2019


Distributech 2019 was held in New Orleans, Louisiana from February 5th – 7th where IHS Markit analysts David Green and Alex Kaplan attended the event to cover the latest industry developments and technology trends.

Tuesday’s opening ceremony kicked the conference off with a clear focus on environmental challenges – with the week following the recent polar vortex that took the United States mid-west by storm, another reason to throw attention to the connection between climate change and growing grid-reliability concerns.

However, it was keynote speaker Paul Hinnenkamp, Executive Vice President & COO of Entergy who really cemented such a theme for the entire show. He lamented on the tragic Hurricane Katrina, which most famously impacted the very city of New Orleans, to highlight the key role of technology in enabling utilities to not only address a new era of environmental and security challenges, but to change the utility “mentality”, to shift “from supplier to partner.”

Outage management and resolution therefore remained a key theme throughout the event, from hardware to software and from metering to the distribution grid.

From total solutions provider to solutions specialist

On the busy show floor, many of the exhibitors displayed the case studies of how utilities could use AMI to address environmental challenges with specific applications; such as fault detection analytics that feed into outage management systems. In fact, as the market and utility landscape continues to mature, so too does the portfolio of solutions that vendors offer.

This represents one of the most interesting conclusions from the 2019 show overall – the re-fragmentation of the software portfolio.  In Distributech shows of recent years, vendor marketing has increasingly focused on the end-to-end offering and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, but perhaps not to any huge success. 

As the software market matures beyond the initial hype, it seems vendors are not emphasising their total solution, but rather the place their specialized software fits into the overall value chain.  For example, many companies exclusively offered specialized applications that were separate from the Head-end Software (HES) or Meter Data Management (MDM) system, but rather sit on top of them in order to feed the Outage Management System (OMS); increasingly, all of these components are less likely to come from the same vendor.

A second generation show

Another stark contrast for Distributech 2019 versus previous shows (and European Utility Week 2018 in particular) was the clear focus beyond hardware and even specific communication technologies.  Whilst the metering conversation at European Utility Week notably centered on the specifics of communications technologies such as NB-IoT and LoRa, it was software and services that took center stage here.

Markedly, the North American market has a higher concentration of communicating meters than any other region. The first generation of smart metering in North America began in 2009 with the American Recovery Reinvestment Act that rapidly equipped utilities with funding to invest in the infrastructure. Ten years later and the conversation is no longer just about hardware; the conversation has become more about how to leverage even greater existing value out of AMI beyond meter-to-cash, because utilities want more.

Wi-Sun strengthens the case for interoperability

Even the hardware specific announcements at Distributech 2019 tended to focus more on open system architecture from multiple vendors; for example through the Wi-Sun Alliance.  Both Itron and Landis+Gyr announced certified devices at the show for AMI-related hardware beyond the meter itself, along with Cisco announcing a certified router.  Again, this is a sign of the move to interoperability and the rise of interconnected platforms rather than a move towards single-vendor solutions.

Total Cost of Ownership is now the biggest topic of conversation as utilities struggle to maximise the return on their hardware and software investment; a topic IHS Markit presented on the Digitalization hub on the second day of the show.

As the industry moves on from the show in New Orleans this is sure to be a theme for the rest of 2019 too; especially as changing climate and technology landscapes converge to bring new challenges and opportunities in the world of smart metering and beyond.

You contact the IHS Markit team for more information about research within the Smart Utility Meter Intelligence Service.

About the author

Kaplan is an analyst of smart utilities infrastructure technology at IHS Markit