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DistribuTECH 2019 utility trends

We spent last week in New Orleans at the #DistribuTECH2019 conference in New Orleans (and yes, the Saints were robbed). Between meetings with attendees and rounds of Cajun food, our team took the pulse of the industry. Here are 4 of our takeaways.

 

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1: Pre-show focus on consumer engagement

Prior to DistribuTECH 2019, on February 4, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC) held its 2019 Consumer Symposium. Buzz at the conference, which focuses on how energy customers deal with the smart grid and related utility programs and services, revolved around data analytics and how digital strategies are revolutionizing the energy business.

Conversations revolved around win-win programs that help consumers save money and help the utility increase reliability. Emphasis was on how data analytics can help utilities develop programs that bundle smart thermostats with time-of-use rate structures, for instance, to allow consumers control over their energy spend while offering utilities an opportunity to increase grid reliability by lowering usage at peak times.

Conference attendees also learned how important it is to offer customized programs and messages to specific consumer groups.  It is vital to understand the challenges faced by low-income consumers who spend a large portion of their incomes on electricity. These customers are often hard to connect with, and utilities must offer them programs specifically tailored to meet their unique circumstances.

Finally, strategic partnerships are crucial to the success of all these software solutions for utilities. Combining AMI data with other data sources, Aclara and its partner, Ecotagious, can break down smart meter data into appliance-level insights. This process infuses more value into home energy reports (HERs), which create engaging content that is detailed and customer-specific utilizing information from meter data without additional customer input. Read more on next-generation HERs.

 

2: Distribution automation gains a foothold

Distribution automation (DA) may finally be ready to converge with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) according to research firm Northeast Group, which identified 2019 as a possible “inflection point where DA finally makes up some ground on its grid modernization predecessor AMI. The DA market has been slow to live up to its potential, but we are now seeing measured growth.”

This insight tracks with a white paper on the impact of DA on electric utilities recently done by energy-focused research firm Zpryme. The report, based on a comprehensive survey of investor-owned utilities, rural electric cooperatives and municipals, found that although 90% of survey respondents agreed that DA is critical for their grid modernization efforts, 29% still in the discovery phase of DA technology deployment and only 5% say their DA plans have already been deployed.

But what’s driving the current interest in DA implementation? The increase in distributed energy resources, including solar installations, windmills, electric vehicles, and energy storage.  As more of these resources come onto the grid, utilities are looking to DA to manage the two-way energy flow associated with them.

 

3: Communications beyond meter-to-cash

Another trend we spotted at DistribuTECH is the industry’s interest in getting more out of smart meter data than electric bills. Industry analyst Alex Kaplan of IHS Markit also identified this trend in a post-conference market insight report.

“The first generation of smart metering in North America began in 2009 with the American Recovery Reinvestment Act that rapidly equipped utilities with funding to invest in the infrastructure. Ten years later and the conversation is no longer just about hardware; the conversation has become more about how to leverage even greater existing value out of AMI beyond meter-to-cash because utilities want more.”

We see AMI networks also acting as the backbone of many direct load control programs that remotely switch consumer loads on and off in response to peak demand. By employing these programs, utility companies can reduce peak-period loads to ensure grid reliability.

Howard Scott, president of Cognyst Advisors and author of the industry’s Scott Report, noted   that many vendors are talking about adding value to communications networks with smart devices to perform applications including load control and DA “As one of the industry’s leaders, Aclara is continuing to address customer needs with innovative, cost-effective solutions,” said Scott.

 

4: Need to optimize older infrastructure

Everyone agrees that the U.S. electric utility infrastructure is aging. One leading investor-owned utility, for example, plans on spending more than $200 million a year over the next 10 years replacing out-of-date transformers.

In addition to replacing old equipment, however, utilities that stopped by our booth explained that they are looking for ways to effectively leverage their existing infrastructure. solutions that will allow them to troubleshoot system issues and optimize existing infrastructure.

For example, the load from devices such as motors and LED lighting sometimes draw more energy resources from the grid than they use. These losses result in low power factor, which represents lost energy.  Utilities can recover up to 3-5% of the energy lost by using devices that correct for power factor.

 

Conclusion

These are just four trends we picked up on at DistribuTECH 2019. In upcoming blogs, we’ll continue to write about the future of the grid. Keep up with the trends by subscribing to our blog digest.

 

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