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July 16, 2012

Utility Companies Riding Data Current

Ian Armas Foster

Utility companies are driving significant innovation in big data technologies—and not just because of the volume of data they handle.

While data sizes are still important, especially considering that smart meters collect data at higher volume and frequency (from once a month to six times a day), the challenge with big data lies as much, if not more, in its analysis than in its collection.

In an attempt to unravel how utility companies are tapping their data wells, Oracle released a report that assesses utilities’ effectiveness in using their smart meter data. Among other things, the report details the current functions, the desired eventual uses, and the challenges of incorporating big data. Oracle also points to a possible solution in Meter Data Management (MDM) systems.

Oracle’s report is extensive in its approach to looking beyond the needs in the present and suggests that utilities have big plans for what smart meter data can reveal as they further refine their technologies. For instance, the report notes that in the next five years, 76 percent would like to “provide customers with information about their usage patterns” while 68 percent would like to “implement and/or improve conservation and efficiency programs.” Indeed, six of the top seven responses (each of which garnered at least 52 percent) to the question “In the next five years, how do you plan to dealt with improving energy conservation.

Just as with other sectors, however, there is a great deal of interest in big data developments, but still some caution—not to mention skill gaps. It seems that utilities do not yet have the confidence to accomplish these goals, with 45 percent of the roughly 150 North American utility execs claiming they have difficulty in quickly providing information to business and half of utility respondents stating that they are missing opportunities to deliver useful information to customers. This lack of confidence may lie in the gap between collecting information and using it. While about 75 percent collect usage and voltage data, only about 75 percent report they are using that data.

Oracle claims it has a potential solution for these barriers via MDM systems. Oracle, not unselfishly, of course, claims that utilities with MDM systems are 37 percent more likely to be prepared to handle the massive data influx. “Our MDM gives us more information at our fingertips, rather than going into the field to collect it,” reports an anonymous US Director of Distribution. A Canadian President/CEO/COO acknowledges, “Our MDM goes through the mountains of information and only takes the information we want based on the rules we set in place.”  However, 30 percent of those with MDM systems still feel they are not yet prepared to handle their big data. This may be due to a large majority (71 percent) of companies not having the talent to properly operate these MDM systems.

While the report is extensive, it would have been interesting to see a breakdown of these numbers with regard to the size of the utility company. Are smaller utilities making better use of a relatively low volume of data or are large utilities able to afford more expensive and more effective MDM systems to better analyze their data? Or is there no difference? These are questions Oracle would do well to answer in future reports.

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