How can utilities harness cloud to support the smart meter data deluge?

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Around the UK utility companies are facing significant change. Shifting customer demands, fresh competition, new government policies and regulation mean business-as-­usual strategies are no longer effective.

Sitting at the centre of these changes is the smart meter. Most us now have one or will have one installed over the next couple of years and while they may help us see how much we’re spending on our energy, these devices also have the capability to radically change the way in which utility companies operate and the nature of their relationships with customers.

Why is a new approach to metering so important?

Consumers are more demanding than ever before and there’s no surprise why when we look at other sectors. For instance, retailers are driving same-day delivery and “try before we buy” and banking apps are revealing our spending habits and teaching us how we can reduce our daily spend to help us save better. Energy companies have been slower to adopt to buyer’s needs, but this is now changing. The roll out of smart meters is giving consumers the ability to track their energy usage in real-time giving users the power to adjust how they use energy in order to lower their bills. But viewing real-time spend is not the only benefit of smart meters.

While we’re all staring at the smart meter watching the kettle boil, our energy companies are collecting valuable data (and a lot of it). This ranges from consumption over time to the quality of received power. Using the combination of consumption and power quality, smart meters are informing providers of any potential problems in their distribution network by analysing the voltage being received and fluctuations that occur.

However, many utility companies are still operating first generation Meter Data Management (MDM) systems which were originally designed to collect basic consumption data and provide a centralised billing system. These systems were never designed to cope with smart-meter technology.

As well as investing in infrastructure that can cope with growing data demands, utilities need to find a way to deal with this data cost-effectively, which arrives in large quantities and in a variety of formats. They need to be able to efficiently collect it, cleanse it and analyse it to extract real business value. There needs to be business rules in place that can deal with everything from billing based on time­ of ­day consumption, net metering as well as all the distribution use cases too.

They also need to be able to manage the smart meters themselves. Essentially small computers, smart meters need to have firmware and security updates which must be carried out in a regular fashion. These kinds of requirements were never considered when using the old meters or first-generation MDM systems.

The bottom line is that utility companies need a metering platform that can scale and be flexible enough to cope with the changes that are happening across the sector. Without this, they will be unable to continue to operate effectively and provide the levels of service that customers now expect.

So, what’s the solution?

Making significant investments in back-­end IT infrastructure that can deal with these high data volumes and extracting business value is not always financially viable for utilities. This is especially the case when utilities have already piled significant capital into their smart meter programs. However, there is alternative.

Cloud-based platforms take advantage of the infrastructure needed to handle high volumes of data without the requirement for sizeable up-­front expense. All data received from smart meters can be stored, backed up, and analysed without the need for any direct investment in physical infrastructure.

Cloud is also scalable. If a utility rolls out another 100,000 smart meters, processing capacity is immediately available as storage and processing resources are consumed as a service. The utility only pays for what is used.

By using a cloud-­based infrastructure to support their smart metering projects, utilities no longer need to be concerned about the cost and complexity of setting up traditional back­-end systems to support these projects. They are free to focus on the data that is being generated and on finding ways to derive business benefit from it.

As the utilities market becomes more complex and competitive, those utility companies that flourish will be the ones that can use data collected by smart meters to have a better picture of their customers and their changing demand patterns.

Want to find out more? Check out how Utilities are fuelling better customer engagement in a recent ANS blog: http://resources.ans.co.uk/blog/how-fuel-better-customer-engagement-in-the-utilities-sector