The changing utility business


It is almost trite to say that the utility business is changing, as that is the raison d’être of the smart grid. But what is perhaps not so widely appreciated is the extent of the changes that could occur.

The “early stage” changes in operation and business practice seem to be well understood, and if the utilities that convened for a Smart Energy International Executive Forum at the recent Metering, Billing/MDM America (reported on page 34) are broadly representative then much effort is being made to ensure these are appreciated both utility-wide and with customers.

However, the executives also feel there will be demands for smart meter and smart grid data that haven’t been thought of yet, and these will inevitably lead to further changes. And longer term the changes could be such that the very relevance of the power utility is open to question, when microgrids – self-contained grids serving a community or area – become widespread and customers become producers of power (pages 26, 66). What this “prosumer” environment will look like is open to question but the call to action is now to start thinking outside the sector and its ability to change.

Nor is it only the power utilities that are undergoing changes. Water utilities, some for the first time, are being required to put a value on water and to take steps towards greater accountability of their resource through, for example, loss reduction and automated metering, and while such activities have long been commonplace in the electric utilities, they are nevertheless a significant advance in this sector (pages 44, 52).

While some of these issues may seem to be of future import, there is nevertheless no time for complacency. Again quoting from the Executive Forum, one after another of the participants highlighted the need to continually nurture customers – and there’s no one blueprint of what works best, with several different approaches offered – but doing this proactively rather than retroactively clearly pays handsome dividends.

Jonathan Spencer Jones