Leveraging the Web for Customer Engagement

by Kevin Cornish, Enspiria Solutions Inc.

Utilities have long used Web portals for electronic billing and simple service work. As the sophistication of customers has grown, some utilities have leveraged their corporate Web pages to provide energy efficiency and helpful hints. The introduction of the data collected with smart meter and advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) systems, however, provides a significant opportunity and a challenge for utilities.

A utility can present customer-focused Web portals that create an entirely new experience and leverage the detailed customer-usage information to drive additional services and expanded customer engagement. Few utilities, however, are prepared to do so. Utilities traditionally have used data presentment capabilities of a meter data management system (MDMS) or specialized data presentment package to provide customers’ usage data. This article provides a new perspective to help utilities re-think their customer portal plans based on market developments and customer needs.

Leveraging the Internet for Smart Metering Projects

With the advent of AMI solutions, the amount of information utilities have on their customers and the quantity and quality of information that can be provided to these consumers has exploded. Early in the smart meter marketplace life cycle, industry pundits predicted that the manner in which utilities would leverage the Internet to engage their customers would change, but has it? With the exception of some high-visibility utility success stories, most utilities have fallen short of expectations.

Utilities have included the presentment of usage information as part of their core requirement set of their smart meter projects. Given that the source data for this information was the MDMS, which consolidates and stores data gathered by the AMI system, utilities looked initially to these solution providers for the customer Web presentment capability. While a significant percentage of a utility’s consumers may visit the utility’s website to look at the newly available explosion of data, the greater question is: What has kept them and will keep them coming back? It is not kilowatt-hour usage data presentment.

A Consumer Focus

Generally, consumers are not interested in their monthly, daily or hourly kilowatt-hours—if they even understand what a kilowatt-hour is. Although utility bills are based on kilowatt-hours consumed—or therms of gas or cubic feet of water—customers actually purchase the utility of the commodity (i.e., the satisfaction obtained by the use of energy rather than the act of using it). It is the ability to light a home, cook a gourmet meal, take a hot shower, watch the latest DVD on a high-definition TV, launder clothes or sit in a hot tub drinking a glass of Bootleg Cabernet that consumers purchase. Seen from this perspective, the act of providing base kilowatt-hour usage data doesn’t make much sense.

Rather than focus on the mere presentment of kilowatt-hour usage data, utilities should examine this opportunity from the customer perspective. What do customers want?

  • Cost. Customers are concerned about their bills. More important, customers will modify their usage behavior when presented with information on how their consumption translates into cost. Utilities should present dollars instead of engineering elements. How much money did consumers spend on electricity? There is some concern that these component values will not exactly match the eventual monthly bills because of taxation, rate effect, etc., but the customer value of the information exceeds this concern.
  • Carbon Footprint. For a growing segment of the population, translating the electric energy consumption into carbon greenhouse gas emissions allows concerned customers to understand the impact of their personal energy consumption. As customers modify their energy use, they can understand visually the environmental benefit.
  • Comparative Information. An important question for most consumers is “How am I doing relative to ” ?” In isolation, an individual consumer only can compare his or her usage against oneself over time. Real value arises when a consumer can understand how he or she compares against others. While needing to ensure individual customer information privacy, a utility can aggregate average data based on house size (obtainable from public property data), appliance and usage qualifiers (consumer-provided), zip code or census tract data, or similar.
  • Historical Data. Some consumers will want to perform their own energy usage data analyses. A reasonable limit exists to what is stored online, so a method of access to more historical data must be provided.
  • Rate Analysis. With the anticipated proliferation of advanced rates such as time-of-use (TOU), critical-peak pricing (CPP), peak-time rebate (PTR) and real-time pricing (RTP), consumers need guidance on the rate programs’ impacts. The ability to leverage the hourly or better interval data to analyze current bill impact of new rates, as well as what-if scenario planning based on changes in customer behavior, provides a powerful, reliable basis for predicting customer impact. This reduces customers’ fear of uncertainty and should lead to higher acceptance rates of voluntary programs.
  • Alerts. Consumers could establish custom alerts to inform them via e-mail or short-message service (SMS) that a pre-configured dollar, greenhouse gas or usage threshold has been or will be exceeded.
  • Conservation Suggestions. While utilities have provided conservation guidance via general information or consumer-initiated analysis and reports, the availability of the interval-based usage data enables a more robust energy consumption analysis and resulting recommendations on conservation opportunities. In addition, because the change is made, a customer can use his or her data to understand the actual impact.
  • Web Communities. Leveraging the explosive acceptance of user-generated content and social media, utilities can provide a mechanism for consumers to rate or recommend conservation methods, similar to http://tripadvisor.com or similar sites. Social media can be used to alert consumers to new information, Web capabilities or service offerings.
  • Support for Home Area Network or Demand Response Program Engagement. This would include enrollment, device provisioning and ongoing support and engagement.
  • Support for Distributed Generation or Renewable Options. Solar and wind are becoming increasingly attractive alternatives as energy costs escalate and equipment costs decline. Favorable tax treatments and utility and government financing or rebates also are stimulating interest. Utilities could provide tools that consider all appropriate design metrics while leveraging customers’ actual usage data to estimate required size, payback period, etc. This Web engagement could function as a springboard to solution-provider references, financing solutions, government rebate information and utility rate options.

The aforementioned represents an incomplete list of solutions envisioned. As important, what will be the solution sets that arise that cannot be imagined today? How will utilities’ Web engagement strategies and architectures support current solution requirements as well as provide the innovation and flexibility to offer future services? Equally important, how will utilities’ vendors and partners support this solution structure and architecture?

The MDMS Role

The Web portal engagement opportunities described focus on information manipulation and presentment to engage customers in how their lifestyles impact their electric, gas and water usage. While the analytics behind this effort are similar to those that form the basis of MDMS solutions, the focus differs from traditional MDMS requirements surrounding the management of metering data and the creation of billing determinants. While MDMS solutions have expanded to manage the wide variation of available metering information including voltage and power quality information, tamper alarms, meter diagnostics, DR or conservation measurement and verification, etc.,—and support for new services such as connect and disconnect—they remain focused on internal utility operations.

The term MDMS is becoming a limiting descriptive for solutions being provided by MDMS platforms. A better descriptor might be operational data management systems or operational information systems. While the MDMS label likely will remain in the near term, the operational focus is destined to grow as utilities look to extract more smart grid-related value out of their smart meter systems. The introduction of enterprise solutions and applications such as volt-VAR optimization, feeder monitoring, faulted circuit indicators and transformer monitoring will require utilities to refine their strategies to manage many more types of devices, provide additional analytics and interface with additional utility operations systems. As more utilities implement distribution management systems (DMSs), the role of the MDMS in brokering data will evolve as the DMS requires different latency than traditional MDMS solutions provide.

In the context of this expanding and evolving operational focus, a valid question is whether MDMS providers also can or should provide a full suite of customer-focused solutions. The answer is a resounding “Maybe, it depends, perhaps not.” The determinant will be to what extent an MDMS vendor can or wants to focus efforts on these different solution segments: utility operations and customer engagement. And this fractured focus extends beyond mere resource assignment but to solution architecture. Architecture considerations for customer-focused solutions include:

  • An enterprise Web architecture is different than the traditional MDMS solution architecture,
  • Security requirements and measures for Web portals that extend outside the utility data center DMZ to millions of customers are different than those for internal access-managed applications,
  • MDMS solutions typically do not maintain or manage dollars; this is the purview of customer information systems,
  • Web strategies that focus more on presenting meaningful information to customers will find themselves combining information from many sources, not just presenting data from the MDMS, and
  • Given that creating engaging Web portals is an art and science of its own, using the MDMS for internal and external utility focus is not optimum.

Primed for Success

Based on this evolving information and customer environment, utilities should look at procuring the solutions in this article via:

  • MDMS. Utilities should continue to procure the MDMS as operational solutions, as has become common. Core adapter and operations application requirements are well-defined, and there are a sufficient number of suppliers to provide utilities with competitive choice.
  • Web Engagement. Treat as a separate set of requirements that can be sourced independently of the MDMS. An MDMS vendor may offer this as add-on functionality, but the use of a single system is less important than in the past where the focus was just to provide consumption data resident in the MDMS. The design, look, feel and focus of customer-facing solutions will mirror those found in the e-commerce space, not those used internal to utilities.

Focusing on the procurement of individual solutions that meet near- and long-term utility requirements will ensure smart meter program success from utility and end-use consumers’ perspectives.

As the marketing matures, new solutions emerge, consumer expectations increase and regulatory mandates change, utilities must be flexible in their technology applications to their smart grid projects.

The natural evolution of data that initially was used only for billing to valuable information consumers use to manage their utility bills requires such a change.


Kevin Cornish is an executive consultant with Enspiria Solutions Inc. He has more than 25 years of industry experience including 13 with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and 10 with utility solution providers. Cornish has master’s degrees in marketing and telecommunications management and electrical engineering/power systems and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He is a registered professional engineer.


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