Data Analytics and Utilities Are Powerful Partners

Data analytics can help utilities identify inefficiencies and streamline operations, resulting in lower costs for the utility and its customers.

by Ed Drew, National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative / July 15, 2014

Rural utility cooperatives work hard to bring the best service at the lowest possible cost to their customers. Yet the cost of maintaining the distribution and transmission infrastructure to cover vast areas can make it hard to achieve that goal. Leveraging data analytics can help. Utilities gathering data from smart sensors, including meters, and external sources such as weather reports, are better able to use the information for actionable intelligence that saves time and money. More specifically, data analytics can help utilities identify inefficiencies and streamline operations, resulting in lower costs for the utility and its customers.

The National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative (NRTC) provides products and services tailored to meet the needs of rural utilities and their members, often located in mountainous and widely dispersed locations across the United States. Many of these rural electric utilities face a variety of issues that threaten their system efficiency such as energy usage and operational concerns. If not properly addressed, these issues can directly affect costs for both the utility as well as customers.

After experiencing a healthy rate of growth in membership, NRTC sought additional ways to help its members deliver energy more efficiently. With a strong interest in technology, NRTC chose data analytics.

Through an amendment to a recently renewed three-year partnership with Sensus, a provider of clean technology solutions, NRTC now offers data analytics including transformer utilization, load aggregation, alert and alarm management data analytics applications and managed services to its rural electric co-op members across the U.S. These rural electric cooperatives can now access data that enhance their operations and address issues specific to their utility. For example, a rural electric utility that is challenged to serve its widely dispersed customer base can leverage the alert management application to improve its customer engagement by providing instant alerts in the event of unusual activity such as an overloaded transformer. 

Data analytics solutions are especially beneficial for rural utilities with limited IT and customer service resources. Many rural utilities struggle to find the time and manpower required to sort through this data on their own. These same rural electric utilities serve a widely dispersed customer base so regular customer interaction is a challenge. Through data analytics, these utilities have more knowledge and insights into their customer base, helping to facilitate regular touch points with their customers and streamlining customer service when questions about usage arise. 

"The utility industry has always been data-driven,” said Brian Crow, CEO of Verdeeco, now a part of the Sensus portfolio NRTC is utilizing. "The challenge is how to pull quality information out of the data. Through the use of data analytics technologies, utilities can now select individual applications to satisfy their specific needs. This focused approach allows them to receive a greater return on their technology investments and solve customer issues faster.”

Data analytics applications provide utilities with fast, cost-effective aggregation of data that open the door to intelligence that protects revenue, reduces maintenance costs, manages load and increases responsiveness.

Since 2011, NRTC members have installed nearly 600,000 meters at various rural electric cooperatives. With the renewed agreement, NRTC plans to install more than one million additional meters at cooperatives. The organization currently supports approximately 900 rural electric cooperatives nationwide.

In addition to the data analytics solutions featured in this amendment, NRTC offers smart grid technologies, smart meters, automation control and demand response solutions. This open standards-based communication network has helped electric utilities and their customers cut costs, conserve energy resources and lower carbon emissions.

Meter readings have increased by billions and billions worldwide. One customer once meant one reading per month. That same customer can now represent several reads per hour, an overwhelming increase in data. Today, utilities have access to a vast amount of data from their smart sensors and external sources such as weather reports. However, data analytics is key to maximizing the value of this information. 

“The challenge isn’t with the amount of data. It is with the ability to make operational decisions based upon the information—for both immediate and future needs,” said Crow.

It is an exciting time for utilities. The utility industry is undergoing an evolution as it begins to realize the true value of data analytics and capitalize on these technologies.

Ed Drew is vice president of utility solutions at the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. This article originally appeared on IntelligentUtility.com and is republished here with permission.