Building the agile utility from steel-toed boots to all-terrain running shoes


By Hendrik Jan van Roest

It’s a brave new world for utility companies. Known previously as dependable, slow footed and steadfast, today utilities are being swept into the future where change, cooperation, compliance, cost management and competition require agility – not steel-toed boots.

Smart metering and unbundling have stimulated new technical and commercial possibilities for utilities and unlocked innovation for household use. Utilities can now compete for consumers’ business just like other retailers; and consumers can switch companies, mix and match power sources, and monitor consumption in real time.

When their homes are equipped with smart meters, consumers will be more aware of consumption costs and techniques to offset usage as well as tariff incentives designed to influence usage behaviour. Consumers will even have the capability to sell back surplus energy generated from their own decentralised power sources – like solar panels or wind turbines. Homeowners can use their heating system to generate energy and command their battery powered cars to charge only during off-peak hours. Many believe home automation and tariff incentives designed to manage and reduce power consumption will significantly change consumers’ energy use patterns, slow the rate of energy demand growth, round off the peaks, and even reduce the need for additional generation capacity.

The new prerogatives for utility organizations can be defined as the “Five Cs:”

  • Remain in Compliance
  • Cooperate with market participants
  • Control smart meter rollout and metering processes
  • Manage Costs
  • Maintain Competitive advantage

In the drive to create a sustainable energy system, new market models and technologies demand agility from utility companies. Ironically, utility systems were built a long time ago for reliability, scalability and availability—not agility and data integration. Nevertheless, they must adapt to compete in a changing marketplace.

The chief difference between then and now is the degree of “actionable” information made possible by smart metering. Using meter data to segment their customer base, special tariffs can be offered to specific customers groups to encourage power consumption during certain hours of the day or night. In addition to better oversight of power consumption overall, the potential to innovate and act upon customer information will stimulate new programs designed to set apart the supplier and create loyalty in the heart and mind of the customer.

IT’S A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME FOR AGILE UTILITIES Liberalisation of power has transformed slow footed utilities into fast acting commercial players. Though still subject to mandates – including supplier changes, energy consumption information, service quality monitoring, build-out of intelligent networks to improve efficiency and reliability in energy distribution, and better optimisation in allocation of resources and utilization of assets – liberalisation offers new opportunities to innovate and win market share.

Approximately 39.2 million smart meters have been installed in homes across Europe, and 96.3 million are slated for installation by the year 2014. But smart metering is just one component of the bigger plan to create a sustainable energy system. Utilities must integrate and analyse an onslaught of digital information to manage fuel measurement and load, workflows, fault analysis, energy balancing, multi-vendor reporting and realtime, personal energy data. In short, the utility must run – not walk – into the digital age.

Utilities are losing millions of dollars because of their fragmented approach to smart metering. Utility organisations must treat the transition to smart meters with a long view and an end-toend approach – seeking ways to monitor, analyse and automate processes wherever possible.

The agile utility must prepare for change – without always knowing what changes are imminent or their impact on the organisation. Regardless of the specifics, the ability to adapt quickly to high volume data exchanges with many market participants requires control, speed in re-engineering business processes and a holistic approach to business process management.

The pressure to keep up with change and reduce operational costs is extreme. It’s a brand new game for utilities – and many are not prepared to automate new data collection and reporting. With no time to lose, utilities are turning to business orchestration partners like Powel ASA for turnkey information technology solutions to automate metering and business processes.

Powel ASA, a leading software supplier in Scandinavia in the field of smart metering (currently managing more than one million smart meters throughout the region) has pooled expertise with Cordys, a business process management software innovator, to create an integrated all-in-one solution. The Powel Smart Metering Suite is an open platform solution with a highly scalable database that offers a comprehensive set of business processes, including:

  • Meter management
  • Meter data management and processes
  • Dashboards
  • Application integration capabilities for CRM, ERP and Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

The Powel business operations platform integrates with legacy systems to give the utility full control over new meter infrastructure. It records every event and allows users to filter and categorise information, automate and measure processes, and uncover faults, quality-of-supply and fraud. With this platform, the agile utility has built-in revenue protection such as functionality to alert energy providers about aberrant energy usage patterns, slow meters, stopped or reversed meters, meter tampering or improper installation.

Business platform operators can sort out which events require manual response and which can be automated to save time and money. The suite gives utilities oversight of process, regulatory framework, rollout and meter infrastructure as well as a view of other market participants.

Liberalisation has radically changed the face of the European energy industry. Utilities that have long been monopolies must now undergo transformation to become agile providers of consumer services in an increasingly competitive marketplace. And to get from here to there is as much about smart metering as it is about information technology. Smart meters produce a wealth of information that must be stored, managed and exchanged securely amongst the market participants. Flexible and future-proof smart metering solutions will help the agile utility manage change as it comes and remain competitive well into the future.