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Union of BI technologies, smart grid may lead to efficient energy use

The convergence of business intelligence (BI) software, data visualization tools and smart meter technology could lead to more efficient energy use.

For years, the utilities industry was anything but transparent. Customers turned their thermostats up when it got cold outside and received a bill at the end of the month.

How and when the utility company came up with the rates and how they were applied to actual energy use were a mystery to most. But that could change thanks to the emergence of smart grid and meter data management technology, as well as innovative uses for business intelligence (BI) and data visualization tools by utility companies.

Take Cobb EMC, an electricity and gas provider in Marietta, Ga. The company, which supplies energy to more than 400,000 households in northern Georgia, recently began using dashboard technology from SAP to monitor and manage its billing processes, according to Roque Marinho, Cobb’s director of enterprise business intelligence.

On any given day, Cobb issues around 20,000 bills to customers and takes in up to $3.4 million in payments, Marinho said. “If the bills don’t go out, my phone rings.”.

The SAP dashboard allows just a handful of employees to monitor the entire billing process, according to Marinho. And self-service reporting capabilities make it easier to investigate billing disputes. Cobb employees manage around 65% of all standard reporting jobs themselves, lightening the burden on IT workers and allowing them to focus on more specialized report requests.

BI technologies can help make dollars & sense of energy consumption
But it is the potential application of BI tools to smart grid and meter data management technology that really gets Marinho excited.

The first batch of smart meters in Cobb County is due to be installed at households starting in November, Marinho said. Smart meters measure energy consumption in hourly or even more frequent intervals and electronically transmit the results back to the utility company. Traditional meters have to be read on-site by a technician, usually done just once a month for billing purposes.

With the influx of detailed energy usage data via smart meters, Marinho envisions a day when data visualization technology will help both the utility company and the customer understand energy use patterns and find ways to be more efficient.

If, for example, customers can view a dashboard online that details their use of electricity against its cost (which fluctuates throughout the day), they could identify the least expensive times to run their dishwashers or washing machines, Marinho said. Or they might simply notice a spike in energy use they weren’t aware of and take some action to reduce their consumption.

The utility companies, meanwhile, are exploring ways to harness data visualization technology to find the most efficient ways to route energy and lower their associated costs.

“If what you can see on that screen can make you change behavior, I call that one of the best ways to utilize BI,” Marinho said.

Merging of BI tools and smart meter technology still in its infancy
Smart grid and meter data management technologies are still in their infancy, however, and it will be years before smart meters are the norm. But the merging of smart meter technology and BI capabilities holds the potential to radically change the way people consume energy, according to Marinho.

“This concept is revolutionizing the utilities industry,” Marinho said.

Meanwhile, utility companies like Cobb are benefiting from BI and data visualization tools in more immediate ways. Managers at Orange and Rockland Utilities in New York, for example, are taking advantage of Information Builders’ self-service reporting tools to manage staffing levels. And in the U.K., EDF Energy is using data mining technology from SAS Institute to identify and target its most profitable customers.

At Cobb, in addition to improving its billing monitoring capabilities, workers recently began using SAP dashboards to monitor and optimize its marketing campaigns.

“As a BI professional for many years, I find this the most exciting change that I have been involved with,” Marinho said.

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