Saturday, 27 February 2016 11:33

Smart meters, need smart grids, need smart clouds, need smart people


Whatever your stance on smart meters it is hard to argue that the intent is not honourable. They are supposed to allow people to control their use of energy, gas, and water, make decisions on which tariffs to use and have granular control over their costs.

And on the flip side whatever they are called – digital, advanced, or smart - they are simply another Internet of Things (IoT) device designed to add a level of intelligence to the distribution network to use analytics to plan for capacity and future growth. Or you can subscribe to the train of thought like Stop Smart Meters Australia that opposes their use on health, privacy, security, safety, and costs grounds.

iTWire is about the tech – not the politics – and interviewed Mike Ballard, Senior Director of Industry Strategy for the Utilities Global Business Unit at Oracle. He has global responsibility for product strategy for Oracle Utilities’ Customer Solutions including customer experience, billing, and metering. He has had over 25 years in IT and utilities, has a first class honours degree in Computing, and was out from the UK to talk to Oracle’s local customers.

He sees himself as global observer able to help prepare for the diverse changes and challenges facing each country and market. The interview is paraphrased to avoid overuse of ‘he said’.

To put Ballard’s perspective firmly in context he works for Oracle that provides cloud-based business solutions to a huge number of industries and vertical markets. Its worth a quick look at the link to see where its influence lies.

Under the broad heading of utilities – electricity, gas, and water – Oracle provides end-to-end software solutions focused on improving customer experience (accurate and timely billing), enhancing operational efficiency (mission critical, reliable supply) and network performance (cost effective). For the most part, these solutions are driven by imperatives like conserving the resource, using infrastructure efficiently (lowest cost), reliability (you flick the switch - you expect the light to turn on), and the future provision of the service. Smart meters, smart grids, smart clouds, and smart people are needed to run a smart service.

Ballard says that smart meters will eventually be used everywhere although there is always going to be those who will opt out choosing to use fixed tariffs instead of demand led ones. Adoption is inevitable because utilities cannot just keep expanding the infrastructure – poles and wires – but must use smart insights to manage existing, and plan for new, infrastructure.

Ballard says that legislative policy is changing to make it easier to get a smart meter from some sources like energy retailers. Victoria is just one state that has a flexible, smart-meter electricity plan that the Government says could save householders A$150 per year just for using more power late at night to the early morning. Time programmable washing machines, or electric vehicle charging, are the biggest target. By the way, don’t worry about the jobs of the poor meter readers – those went the way of the dodo a long time ago when householders were asked to read meters instead.

He said that smart meters are just an IoT device - merely a computing device that measures usage and communicates that data via 2/3G Telco systems, or in some cases via power lines. The data ends up in the utility cloud where it is used for billing and analytics. Smart meters will be a precursor to increased use of solar and home storage of power for distributed power generation.

Data from smart meters enable utilities to gather millions of more data points across the grid to visualise better how voltage is being distributed throughout their networks and more importantly, why. This provides a rich variety of historic, real-time and even predictive data: for example, it could predict how a local transformer might fail in different scenarios, based on its type, age and network load.

Oracle is largely hardware agnostic – any meter, and network, and utility and its beginning to see changes in the way utilities manage their resources. While the consumer still makes most decisions based on cost some need 100% reliability or flexibility and smart meters enable that.

The value of data-driven insight is almost universally understood throughout the utilities sector. According to research from Accenture, more than 90% of energy providers say that data analytics technologies are among the most important assets in preparing for smart grid.

Ballard says the legacy systems that many utilities still have in place today are not designed to support the demands of the modern energy market. Having a choice, customers in competitive markets become increasingly demanding of their service provider. They are also becoming increasingly concerned with how much energy they use and expect their utilities to help them manage their consumption and lower their bills.

The full impact of smart grids can only be imagined, but it is clear that it will represent a revolution in modern utilities infrastructure, the energy market, and how customers source and manage their energy.

The effective collection and analysis of data will be central to managing this infrastructure, both in day-to-day operations and for answers to the long-term strategic challenge of providing affordable, sustainable energy for all.

Data analytics is the medicine that will keep the energy infrastructure healthy during this time of great change, and beyond. It’s not a bitter pill to swallow; side effects are negligible – so maybe now is the time for utilities to take the plunge and do what they know is best for them and their customers in the long term.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!



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