Utilities Executives Cite Need for Analytics Skills, Smart Meter Data Integration

by   |   March 7, 2013 1:32 pm   |   0 Comments

NAPA, Calif.—With smart meters producing a steady rise in data volumes to open up more analytics use cases, utilities executives at an analytics conference here said they face important challenges in staffing, data integration and customer marketing.

Keynotes at the Utility Analytics Institute’s Summit focused on big-picture thinking about the future of analytics in a post-smart grid world and enterprise analytics. But in breakout sessions, at lunch tables, and around coffee carts on breaks, conference attendees talked of other data-oriented challenges keeping them up at night.

No. 1 on this list: Without question, staffing.

Here, attendees say they’re grappling with two issues: First, hiring talent away from larger organizations in more lucrative industries that can pay more, and second, finding programmers with appropriate skill-sets to build to the analytical scenarios that utilities need to get ahead.

“The business side leverages data to produce a lot of different use cases,” said Sheldon Glody, a project manager at San Diego Gas & Electric. “But the process of finding people with the mathematical brainpower and skill sets to translate these use cases into analytics that provide significant value is a real challenge.”

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Glody and a number of other attendees described the kind of employees they’re looking for as data scientists, noting that these people would possess the abilities to build models to crunch data and understand how to apply it for real business change.

Ultimately, Glody noted, utilities may have to start working with universities to shape a curriculum that helps prepare more undergraduate students to fill this role. “If we can’t find the candidates we need, we may have to help create them,” he said.

Smart Meters Lead to Data Integration Challenge

Data integration is another challenge for conference attendees, particularly in those cases where smart meters have generated teraflops of data.

Don Jacobs, project management office manager and technology coordinator for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), complained that after three years of collecting data through a three-year federally funded program with 610 smart meters, his agency now must dive into its silos of disparate data and figure out which departments own what.

Jacobs noted that the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel has put together a good reference model for integration and governance, and noted this likely will guide SMUD’s efforts moving forward.

One particular area for improvement: Grid efficiency.

Currently, utilities like SMUD produce a band of energy strong enough to guarantee a certain amount of energy to every customer down the line. Jacobs said that if utilities can use data analytics to narrow the band by even 1 or 2 percent, it would translate into serious money.

“It’s about becoming more responsive to demands in real-time,” he said. “It makes our business more efficient. And the better we do it, the more we save.”

Jeanette Surratt, meter data management analyst with Wabash Valley Power, a generation and transmission cooperative based in Indianapolis, agreed. Surratt said her organization coordinates the efforts of 26 energy providers across four states. Since most of these providers have different technologies producing different datasets in different formats, integration can be tough.

One of the ways Wabash Valley has been able to tackle this challenge is by working from Siemens, which is helping Surratt figure out ways to integrate the different datasets with a variety of Advanced Metering Infrastructure systems.

“Good relationships with good vendors are critical,” said Surratt. “Ultimately we plan to manage all of these moving parts on our own. Until then, we’ll take all the help we can get.”

Marketing Analytics a Priority

Data-driven customer marketing also was a hot topic at the summit.

Dr. Steven Pratt, CTO at CenterPoint Energy in Houston, said that trust and reliable notification in particular is critical to keeping customers happy, and that data analytics can drive those processes.

“With 221 million meter reads a day, we have a tremendous amount of information about our customers at our disposal,” he said. “What we do with that data is critical.”

Looking toward the future, Pratt shared rudimentary plans for what he called a Customer Vision Platform, a homegrown systems management interface that pulls together data from a number of different areas of the business and enables CenterPoint to see what specific customers are experiencing at any point in time.

Ultimately, he added, CenterPoint hopes to leverage the Customer Vision Platform to segment customers and market to them based on their needs.

“If we can offer customers specific energy services that will truly make their lives easier, we’re using the data to serve them better,” he said. “In many ways that’s what analytics in this environment is all about.”

Matt Villano (mjv@whalehead.com) is a freelance writer based in California. He specializes in security, education technology and business development. Follow him on Twitter at @mattvillano.

Home page image of smart meter by Flickr user Miss Efficiency.

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