US utilities rely on customers not smart meters for outage alerts, says survey

Metering International May 4, 2015
A note from the editor

A story broke this past week that must make smart meter manufacturers want to drum their fists on their circuit boards in frustration.

Of a group of 20,000 utility employees surveyed in the US, the majority said they still rely on customer calls and SCADA to alert them to power outages. And these are utilities WITH smart meters.

Admittedly this is a small sample and not truly representative of a whole country or industry, but it does raise the point that technology is only good when you know how to use it.

Most of us will never benefit from the full technological capabilities of our PCs or smart phones because it takes time and training to learn them. Is this true for utilities?

And the customer-side benefit of smart meters isn’t being realised either as only 25% of utility staff questioned said they deploy the estimated time to restoration function to keep homeowners and businesses in the loop when the power goes off.

At a time when smart meters and their advantages are being strongly challenged, utilities should up their game and demonstrate to their critics the wow factor of using advanced metering for better service delivery and customer communication.

In the US, utilities are still reliant on customers to notify them of outages despite the installation of smart meters in their service areas, according to a report by smart grid solutions company Bridge Energy Group.

A study of the US utility industry on the subject of Outages and Restoration Management found that while 81% of utilities surveyed have deployed smart meters, 58% of respondents primarily rely on customers for ‘blue sky’ day alerts and 54% rely on customer notification during storms.

Only 16% of utilities surveyed use their smart meters for outage alerts on blue sky days and 12% during storms, according to the survey.

The study, which questioned more than 20,000 utility employees about their experience of outages, found that supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) is the second source of power outage information with 26% of utilities relying on it for blue sky day alerts and 32% during storms.

Another reason cited by utility personnel for not having a smooth running outage management system (OMS) was the difficulty in integrating related systems.

Forrest Small, vice president of Grid Reliability at Bridge Energy Group, said: “For the past three years, we’ve seen almost half of survey respondents indicate that the integration of systems is the biggest impediment to OMS related projects.

“It’s no surprise then that feeding outage notifications from smart meters to the OMS is not widely implemented at this point.

Mr Small added: “Unfortunately, simple integration can lead to false positive notifications, which obscures real outage information.”

Notifying customers of outages

Small also said that utilities are not maximising on their smart meter investments as only 25% of them are calculating estimated time to restoration information and passing this on to customers.

He said: “As the tech-savvy consumer more actively engages in online and social media platforms, they expect real-time information and updates. For a utility, simply knowing where an outage is located is not enough for the 21st-century energy consumer.”

Energy usage without a smart meter

Tendril’s solution builds a customer-usage profile and uses data analytics to predict higher than expected bills, which the company says ‘circumvents the need for a smart meter’

Tendril’s solution builds a customer-usage profile and uses data analytics to predict higher than expected bills, which the company says ‘circumvents the need for a smart meter’

Meanwhile, US energy services management company Tendril has announced a solution to deliver billing analysis that it claims circumvents the need for a smart meter.

Tendril’s product – Proactive High Bill Notifications – uses data analytics to assess historical energy consumption to inform customers about increased energy usage and provide energy-saving tips to reduce bills.

The model uses a range of data, including demographic, local weather and other third party information on home location and architecture, to create energy intelligence that helps utilities deliver personalized messages.

Customers will be notified through their billing cycle if their bill is expected to be higher based on their normal usage patterns.

The notifications – delivered through text, email or an engagement portal depending on customer preference – show customers their usage to date and what their projected bill amount will be if no course-correction is taken.

Tendril claims the main selling point of the service is to reduce customer calls regarding bill queries, which a survey by Gartner estimates to cost about US$8.50 each to service.

Chris Black, CTO and COO at Tendril, said: “Up until now, utilities wanting to provide highly accurate alerting to their customers had to make a significant investment in smart meter technology.

“With our unique capability to provide individualized insights and recommendations without smart meter data, Tendril can bring personalized proactive notifications to all energy consumers.”