By Bob Fesmire, ABB Energy Interactive
Customers want detailed information about their energy use in order to control costs and improve efficiency. However, interval meter data in its raw form is unwieldy and not particularly informative. Customers must bring the data into some kind of analytical framework in order to glean useful information from it. Traditionally, utilities have performed this analysis, but this highly labor-intensive approach simply will not hold up as demand for such services increases.
The solution some leading energy providers have adopted-in both regulated and competitive markets-is the online energy information service (EIS). With the widespread adoption of Web-based technologies, it is now possible to provide customers with timely, useful information without placing unrealistic demands on internal resources. A good EIS allows customers to better understand the way their organizations use energy, and better manage their energy costs. The utility providing such a service also enjoys advantages such as product differentiation, enhanced brand equity, customer retention, additional revenues and leverage of investments in automated meter reading systems.
There are, of course, a number of load data analysis products already on the market that might provide commercial and industrial customers with the analysis they need. But what should you look at when shopping for an EIS system?
Building a better mousetrap
One of the most common problems with energy usage analysis tools currently on the market is that they are often packed with functionality that the average energy customer may not understand, let alone use. Many are desktop tools that require users to collect and import load data before any analysis can be done. These products place a burden on the user and present a steep learning curve the customer must overcome before reaping the benefits of the analysis. In order for an EIS program to be successful, customers must be able to realize value from using the service almost immediately. If there is too much of an up-front commitment required of them, they will likely seek alternative ways to get the information they need-which in a competitive market could mean the loss of a valuable account.
Find out what your customers want before making a purchase decision on an EIS. Ideally, you should be able to match their needs with a service that delivers analytical capability without unnecessary features, without requiring customers to compile load data from various sources and without them having to install, learn and maintain yet another desktop software package. That said, there are certain basic elements of functionality that an EIS system should include.
- Graphic representation of load data: This may seem obvious, but the vast majority of commercial and industrial energy customers presently do not have the ability to move quickly from a tabular representation of meter data to a graph or vice versa.
- Flexibility in data selection: One of the biggest problems with traditional analyses (done by the utility) is the lack of support for iterative processes. An online EIS should provide customers with the ability to view data for any combination of accounts or account groups, to cover any time period, and to change these criteria quickly and easily.
- Bill estimation: Energy providers have begun to offer electronic bill presentation and payment, but customers may require billing information long before the end of the billing cycle to plan future operations or for budgeting purposes. To address this need, an online EIS needs to provide to-date estimated bills based on available billing data.
- Two-way communication: Presently characterized by features like administration of real-time pricing (RTP) and load curtailment programs, communications between utilities and their customers will become more detailed and more automated as the technology advances. The EIS should support these kinds of programs by acting as a communications gateway.
- Security: In lieu of a longer discussion of security measures, suffice it to say that customer interval data should never be directly accessible from the Internet. Technologies such as dual firewalls, reverse proxy servers and secure sockets layer (SSL) can provide adequate protection from external threats, while passwords and other mechanisms prevent unauthorized access by system users.
Online services in general are still in their infancy-as technology advances and customers become acclimated to using Internet-based tools, the ability of your EIS to adapt becomes more important.
Scalability is important to accommodate new customers as they sign up for the service. Upgrades to hardware may become necessary to serve an increasing volume of users, but the software should never require “upgrades” to handle more customers. Similarly, adding new functionality to the EIS should not require a significant amount of downtime or major changes to the software. In order to keep pace with customer expectations and stay ahead of competitive challenges, make sure the system you choose can grow to meet your customers’ needs.
Finding the perfect mousetrap
A lot of ink has already been spilled in discussions of what role having a recognized brand image will play in the energy marketplace. Regardless of what anyone says, two things remain true about utility Web sites: First, they present a new point of contact at which customers interface with their energy provider, and, secondly, the Web site will quickly become the primary point of contact for commercial and industrial customers. (This is already happening at utilities that have deployed successful EIS programs.) For these reasons, it is imperative that customers’ online experience should reinforce the quality and brand image of the utility providing the service. The EIS should fit seamlessly into the utility’s existing Web presence.
Presently, there is a relatively small group of firms offering online energy information services, but as deregulation drives energy providers to deliver more value-added services to their customers, the number of EIS vendors is likely to grow. Beware of Web designers or e-commerce companies with little or no experience in the energy industry. The time spent in education your EIS supplier about the needs of major energy customers is better spent in serving those customers in other ways. Even established IT companies serving the retail energy sector may not be focused on customer-facing applications. Given the high visibility of EIS systems and their increasingly important role in building sustainable customer relationships, it makes sense to choose a vendor that has specific experience in developing and implementing information services that are targeted to major energy customers. Check references and ask the vendor’s customers about their experience in deploying their EIS. In addition to validating the vendor’s claims of success, you may also get some valuable advice on how to sell the service internally and roll it out to customers.
Bob Fesmire, direct marketing manager, may be contacted at 510-982-4513 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.abb.com/ energyinteractive for more information.