Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Utility of the Future

The question that most utilities ask is how to get to “the utility of the future”. However, you must start with defining what the future is. I see the future as building a utility that is customer-driven, integrated, interactive, optimized, distributed, secure, and self-healing. The utility of the future is:

· One that is capable of decoupling the physical delivery of the electrons from the commercial transaction of who, how, where, and when payment occurs
· One that understands that generation sources will be distributed and not entirely under the ownership of the utility
· One that excels in managing all the elements of the grid as a well orchestrated and self-healing system
· One that offers its customers affordable services and plans that realize true sustainability to its maximum capacity while eliminating the pollution and waste created

Once you have defined the future state, then you must assess the current state in writing and with signed agreement of the executive team. After nailing down the current and the future states, then comes a gap analysis and a plan of action for initiatives that will drive the transformation. That execution plan should be a collaborative effort from key stakeholders. And after the plan is agreed upon, you can declare execution and get to work. Remember that it is a journey.

Austin Energy’s journey

At Austin Energy, our success formula leads with enterprise architecture, followed by deploying smart meters, automated metering infrastructure—with a two-way communications network—and a meter data management system that integrates with the billing system, outage management system and marketing/conservation systems. After that, we closely follow with a distribution management system and integrate all elements to our supervisory data acquisition and control (SCADA) system and energy management system (EMS). As the technology and process transformation takes place, the policy and marketing teams must prepare to enable new services, programs, and pricing offers for all customer types.

What are some of the benefits to our customers? There are many, but let me list a few:
· Faster notification and restoration times from outages
· Better understanding and management of bills through access to usage information via a web portal
· Ability to participate in energy efficiency and demand response programs
· Reduced inconvenience by no longer needing to unlock gates and tie up dogs for meter reads
· Improvements in timeliness and accuracy of billing with fewer estimated bills
· Remote service turn-on and shut-off
· Access to real-time meter reads through a call to customer service or via data on an in-home display or web portal
· Customer can manage appliances via web portal
· Ability to participate in other tariff options

And the benefits to the utility? A few include:
· Reduced operating costs (e.g. fewer truck rolls)
· Improved outage management – ability to quickly determine if power is off or on
· Reduced number of delayed and estimated bills
· Reduced energy theft
· Lower procurement costs
· Improved load profiler
· Improved distribution load management and planning
· Greater historical load and usage data
· Better asset management and maintenance
· Time-of-use pricing, pre-paid pricing, and flat bill pricing programs
· Reduced need for additional generation and transmission capacity
· Support any market price-responsive tariff requirements

The vision: A day in 2015

Let’s fast forward to 2015 and share a day in the life of Ms. Small Commercial Owner (Sco). First to arrive, Ms. Sco opens up shop and goes through her daily routine, but her routine has shifted since she grew more aware of her consumption, and increasingly, of the potential for conservation. She no longer walks through the building, turning on all the lights and pushing down the thermostat setting to get the building cooled off after it warmed up overnight. The building is already pre-cooled according to a predetermined electricity conservation plan and her utility system is programmed to turn lights on and off according to a schedule based on room occupancy.

Instead, she heads straight for the computer to log in to her utility system and prepare for her weekly staff meeting at 9:00 am. As she begins to scan the different screens to track the performance of her business to its preset electricity goals, she couldn't help but recall how much things had changed in the six months since she began taking control of her business electricity use. Her company had already dropped its electricity bill by 20 percent, progress that had eluded her before she had the utility system working in the background on her behalf. She had already incorporated the good news about her new conservation-oriented workplace in the latest marketing collateral—anything to get an edge on the competition—and the new solar panels had just gone up last month. Already, the sun was inching up in the sky and the dial on the computer screen was whirling away, running counterclockwise as the numbers ticked down, not up. One could even say that her business had added a new profit center, given that she was using her rooftop to generate electricity!

As Ms. Sco heads to lunch, she glances at the utility system. It glowed green. She knows that it will move it to yellow as the end of the month came near, giving her and her staff more incentive to be more mindful of consumption in order to meet their monthly goals.

First to show up, last to leave, such was the life of the small business owner. It didn't take nearly as long to shut down the office by clicking through computer screens as it did to walk around the building and inspect light switches, systems, and so forth. No longer strictly reliant on a mental checklist, now she merely quickly reviews the utility system which monitors operational status as well as up-to-the-minute energy consumption levels, comparing them to pre-set goals based on best practices and industry norms. Thanks to the utility system, electric expenses had been transformed from one of the hardest line items on her income statement to manage to one of the easiest.

Nighttime is the major off-peak cycle in any utility service territory, when electricity rates are the lowest. Charging forklifts and other battery-driven equipment—a category that now includes plug-in electric hybrid vehicles (PHEVs)—is best accomplished overnight to avoid the high spikes in energy consumption that can prove costly under electricity rates that include a "demand" charge.


I wrote this articled for the new Intelligent Utility magazine debuting last month.
The publication is a great move forward in our industry. The Editor-in-Chief is a great bright friend Christine Richards. Congratulations Christine and her team for a great start!

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