Advanced Energy Perspectives

Electricity in the Information Age: Big Data Could Mean Big Benefits for All

Posted by Coley Girouard

Dec 1, 2016 3:52:41 PM



Virtually every industry is transforming to incorporate data strategically, and the information age has finally arrived in the electric utility industry. With the deployment of smart meters now approaching 50% of all electric meters, utilities are collecting massive amounts of granular data. The question is, how can utilities best utilize all of this data and make it available—and useful—to customers and third parties?

The key to unlocking the wide array of benefits that smart meters can provide is data access. While the amount of available data has increased, it remains largely in the hands of utilities, and access to this data by customers and third-party distributed energy resources (DER) providers has lagged behind. Timely and convenient access to both customer and system data is vital for stimulating innovation and is necessary to move the energy industry into the digital age.

Customer Data

The main type of data that utilities are collecting is customer energy usage. The inability of customers and third parties to access this data—be it daily, hourly, or in near real-time—significantly limits the benefits that smart meters can provide. Having access to their own usage data allows customers to track and manage their energy use, reducing their costs. That said, most customers are not in a good position to turn individual data points into useful information. The real value will come from making the data available to third-party distributed energy resource and energy service companies that can process the data, providing customized and actionable insights to customers.

Today, without a standardized way to access customer data, third-party companies must instead figure out how each utility stores and makes available their customer data or they have to install a redundant metering system onsite to track individual customer loads. Gaining access to this data through the utility would instead provide a more cost-effective means for third parties to enhance their DER products and services, and in turn provide more value to their customers and to the grid. For example, armed with customer usage data, an energy efficiency or demand response company can more accurately tailor their services and recommendations to a customer’s specific circumstances. This, in turn, would provide more system benefit by enhancing customer participation in utility energy efficiency or demand response programs.

System Data

Equally important is system-wide data that utilities acquire from both smart meters and an increasing number of sensors and devices on the distribution system. The inability of third parties to easily access system data is another barrier to fully realizing an animated DER marketplace. Utilities are also beginning to develop additional information about their network, identifying local constraints and properly measuring the distributed generation hosting capacity of individual feeders and circuits. Better access to this data allows third parties to design products and services that can benefit not only individual customers, but also the broader grid. For example, this system data can be used by third parties to identify the best places on the system to site distributed generation or to target demand reductions to reduce congestion, thereby avoiding costly network upgrades. Solar companies could use the data to target the right neighborhoods in which to sell solar without needing additional feeder upgrades. And, energy storage companies could use the data to propose building a project in a high congestion area that would be cheaper than building new traditional “poles and wires” infrastructure in that area.   

It’s Good for Utilities, Too

Utilities also stand to benefit from the data that investments in smart meters and other advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) provide. Utilities can use data to get better insights into both their customers and their system performance and needs by using data analytics, which in turn can help them deliver non-energy benefits, save money, and improve system efficiency and reliability. Data analytics enables utilities to develop more precise real-time load monitoring and forecasting capabilities to optimize utility capital and operations and maintenance (O&M) expenditures, and improve resiliency. For example, utilities can analyze AMI data to identify how their assets are performing and to get better visibility into how best to maintain or replace those assets. Utilities can also analyze energy use throughout their service territory to meet a range of planning needs, such as distribution system analysis, resource mapping, and targeting outreach to customers.

States Looking at Increasing Data Access

Although the benefits of increased data access are clear, it does raise a few privacy concerns that must be considered and worked through before implementation. However, early adopters have demonstrated that those concerns can be addressed and mitigated by establishing data access standards, customer authorization procedures, and data exchanges. We have seen several states looking at their data access rules and procedures in 2016 (with links to AEE PowerSuite sourced dockets):

  • In March, the Illinois Commerce Commission established Green Button Connect as the automated electronic delivery method for third parties to access customer data in order to increase the benefits of Illinois' investment in advanced metering infrastructure.
  • In May, Xcel Energy in Colorado reached a settlement agreement to address customer data access issues and agreed to consider implementation of Green Button Connect at some point in the near future.
  • In June, staff of the Public Utility Commission of Texas recommended that the Commission open a rulemaking to address issues around Smart Meter Texas (SMT) - a web portal that enables a customer and the customer's retail electric provider to access the customer's usage data. As a result, in July the Commission opened two rulemakings - one on third-party authorization to access data and one on SMT governance.
  • In June 2016, the California Public Utilities Commission streamlined their data access rules by authorizing utilities to use a click-through electronic signature process for verifying customer identity and to authorize releasing data. This decision will improve both data access but also improve the user experience – critical to boosting enrollment rates.
  • The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission also continues to investigate a standardized solution for a secure web portal for the acquisition of smart meter data, with utilities submitting technical implementation plans on uniform system-to-system functionality in July. 
  • In August, the Customer Energy Usage Data working group, in Minnesota’s long open data access and privacy policies proceeding, filed a report with recommendations to the Commission on privacy policies (the Commission held a meeting on the report on December 1).
  • Also in August, the New York Public Service Commission opened a proceeding, resulting from the Track 2 order in its Reforming the Energy Vision proceeding, focused on utility revenue reforms and aggregated data access requirements.

Clearly, the vast quantities of data that these new smart meters provide can transform how customers manage their energy use and can revolutionize how both third parties and utilities do business. The sooner the electric industry can access, analyze, and act upon this data, the faster it will be able to stimulate innovation and drive towards a modern, high-functioning grid—and the sooner electric utilities, advanced energy companies, and customers all stand to benefit.

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Topics: State Policy Update, PUCs


Advanced Energy Perspectives is AEE's blog presenting news, analysis, and commentary on creating an advanced energy economy. Join the conversation!

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