How smart utilities can meet rising consumer expectations in a digital-first world

Image by Renee Gaudet from Pixabay

By: Phil Beecher, Wi-SUN Alliance

The world we live in is a far more connected place than it was even a decade ago. And it is this connectivity—built into everything from airplane navigation systems to smart medical equipment and factory floor sensors—that’s driving a new era of seamless digital experiences. Today, consumers can do most things at the push of a button or swipe of a smartphone screen—from ordering a cab to booking a doctor’s appointment. And increasingly, they expect the same quality of experience and level of convenience from their energy providers. 

For utility firms, this smart technology revolution offers huge opportunities to trim costs, drive operational efficiencies and appeal to the rapidly evolving expectations of their customers. But the wealth of innovation that smart utility tech can bring to the sector must be built on solid foundations, including the right kind of technology to support secure, reliable and standards-based field area networks (FANs).

Consumers want more

These are challenging times to be a power utility. Slumping industrial and commercial demand in the early part of the pandemic impacted revenue for some providers, with wholesale prices even turning negative in some European countries. A temporary suspension to disconnections, late fees and debt collection further impacted profits.

Amidst this turmoil, smart utility technology offers some important benefits—putting consumers more firmly in the driving seat while enabling providers to run more agile business operations. Just take smart metering systems, which work to enhance transparency for end users and providers by collecting information on supply and presenting it via a cloud-based interface or smartphone app. Smart metering systems support continuous remote monitoring, which enables utilities to better manage continuity of supply—and provide more granular information in the event of an outage, another enhancement to the customer experience.

Account management is also simplified and enhanced via smart metering. With greater insight into energy usage, providers could roll-out dynamic pricing programs which charge different rates depending on demand on the grid at any one time. With this kind of real-time information, customers can then make more informed decisions on when to use energy. There’s an important green angle here too: by capturing and analyzing more information, providers can not only improve the efficiency of power supply, but also support customer efforts to use energy more responsibly.

Smart sensors can also provide vital telemetry from various points across the network to reduce the impact of outages. For example, they could detect a partial short on a section of distribution network where a tree has fallen onto a cable in a rainstorm. Such sensors could even be able to predict when failures may occur—pole tilt sensors can sound the alarm when a pole has been damaged, before it comes down and breaks a power cable. The same technology can help to improve operational efficiency for engineers, by reducing the number of on-site call-outs and providing more accurate, localized information.

Building a firm foundation

These technology innovations represent fantastic opportunities for power providers to build closer relationships with their customers, differentiate on new value-add services and streamline processes. But they must be built on secure, reliable foundations. From a technology perspective, bi-directional communications are required between sensor/smart meter and utility back-office software. This is where mesh-enabled field area networks (FANs) offer an advantage over other options.

Mesh networks are generally more reliable than star network topologies as data can be re-routed if devices lose contact with each other. Also, transmissions are usually made over shorter distances so providers benefit from improved power efficiency and performance. Crucially, mesh networks provide a way for smart meters to send outage messages to devices on the distribution network. Local intelligence, in the form of edge computing capabilities, can help to reroute power to avoid the cause of the outage. It can also help to isolate the fault and disconnect the faulty part of the system—which for a shorted or faulty device could be dumping a lot of power. The same information can help repair teams by locating exactly where a problem is.

FANs like these are already providing secure, resilient and cost-effective connectivity to support smart utilities across rural and dense urban environments. Providers should look for ecosystems which follow open, interoperable standards that guarantee components are stress-tested and high quality, follow the latest security guidance, and protect owners from stranded assets as the technology inevitably evolves.

This is not smart technology for the future, it’s already here. The Wi-SUN Alliance has supported the roll-out of over 60 million smart meters in Japan, for example. The Internet of Things (IoT) can help to make grids more responsive, efficient, predictive and end user-friendly. Given the expected challenges of the coming decade, that’s something all utilities providers should be on board with.

Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance and a recognized global expert on wireless IoT. He can be reached at phil.beecher@wi-sun.org

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