Energy and utility thought leaders come to the Energy Thought Summit (ETS) in Austin every March to share fresh stories, discuss successful technology deployments and work together to re-imagine the future of the utility industry. Last week was the 5th annual event – and throughout the event we heard once again about the three D’s;
All are important for technology vendors who serve the utility vertical and during the various sessions and presentations all were at the forefront. Here are three different stories from ETS that touch on all three.
Data driving new business models
Data gathered from smart meters (or other sensors) isn’t new for utilities in North America, but the current benefits are not easy for the public (or even a general technology audience) to grasp. Utilities and regulators at ETS pointed to the immense amount of truck rolls and manpower hours saved after Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston (because of having smart meters installed in greater Houston), and they are right to ensure this benefit gets the attention it deserves. However, the promise of real-time data and how it can help influence real-time operations and services has been murky and unclear to date.
In a deregulated electricity market like Texas we are starting to finally see some clear, new business models emerge for retailers to employ. The quality and understanding of the data gathered from sensors and smart meters is dramatically improving and now retailers can do much more than simply sell kWhs:
- On the customer engagement side – retailers are now able to alert customers to changing weather patterns and warn them ahead of anticipated higher bills, helping to reduce customer negativity around such events.
- In terms of simply improving service – retailers can better alert a customer when it is time to change their A/C filter.
- In terms of new business models – retailers are exploring offering additional services such as energy audits, A/C repairs, and home insulation maintenance.
The availability, quality and understanding of the data allows for the service provider to be specific in terms of their actions, more pointed in communication and therefore more successful in driving out new business models.
Microgrids are roaring back
Microgrids have been a hot topic for a few years, while being a staple in the utility technology space for decades. Now in 2018 there are new business models emerging that are putting microgrids back on the map. In particular, ‘Microgrids as a Service’ is here and has been observed in various use case across North America. A panel discussion at ETS highlighted how a utility, system integrator and large energy user (data center) came together to design a microgrid for the data center. Quite clearly it is a win – win - win for all parties. The utility gets improved quality and stability of the grid, the data center gets improved reliability and the integrator wins new business. This business model makes particularly good sense in deregulated electricity markets whereby the system integrator can own the microgrid assets, run a virtual power plant, and sell peak power back to the central utility. The large energy user simply pays a service fee to ensure reliability.
Artificial Intelligence for utilities?
A presentation given by local Austin technology startup SparkCognition asked the question – is there a place for artificial intelligence in the distribution utility?
The business case for AI and machine learning is generally involving large quantities of data with repetitive query and analysis needed for anything from credit ratings to predictive mechanical failure analysis. Currently the best use for AI seems to be in generation whereby large capital assets (like big natural gas turbines) are better maintained and understood. However, there is opportunity in distribution as the number of data points grows exponentially and the manner in which electricity is produced, bought, sold and used changes.
The question here is timing – are utilities ready now? Will AI be the key to unlock improved grid design, better asset management, curtailing electricity theft, and better connecting the utility to the smart city? Maybe ETS19 will provide the real-world case studies and success stories for AI that will convince the waiting utilities to make the digital change.