by Ann Burns, Growth & Strategy Lead for Resources, Accenture APAC; and Simon Vardy, Utilities Strategy Lead, Accenture Australia.
As utilities around the world continue the adoption of smart metering technologies, Australian utilities need to keep pace or run the risk of falling seriously behind.
Water and electricity are among the last remaining services where consumers are expected to be happy receiving a bill every three months paid in arrears. When it arrives it contains one meaningful data point – the total consumption for the quarter. Being happy with this situation is akin to being happy reading a three month old newspaper – no choice of content and it’s out of date before you get it. Smart meters are rapidly changing this, and the opportunities to find new revenue streams and cost savings for utilities are endless.
Globally, the electricity industry has already rolled out millions of smart meters and continues to do so rapidly, reaping the benefits to optimise the grid and directly benefit consumers. Australian states, other than Victoria where there was a mandatory rollout, will have targeted rollouts in a competitive environment in the near future. With the massive uptake of rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) and other distributed energy resources increasing rapidly, smart meter data is being used by utilities to help optimise the size, cost, and effectiveness of placement of panels.
The water industry has been much slower to latch on to the trend. In some cases this is due to upfront costs and smaller benefits, but in many instances it is due to a narrow and parochial view of the benefits. Many smart meter business cases lack foresight and creativity – usually due to the stringent requirement for benefits to be immediately demonstrable.
Business cases tend to categorise the financial benefits as avoided costs (e.g. meter readers), deferment of infrastructure augmentation, network operational efficiencies (e.g. leak detection), and demand management activities. Benefits for the consumers in the form of greater control and insight, and also innovative uses of the data (e.g. by third parties) are barely considered, and almost always are not given a monetary value. For water utilities, where customer satisfaction is sometimes considered the equivalent to share price, this is a glaring oversight.
A cursory glance at developments in international markets shows what is possible. Companies like Bidgely detect real-time appliance consumption patterns, which can be used to indicate when they need servicing or provide automatic control options. In the US there is the Green Button Initiative where 60 million users can authorise third parties to access their standardised smart meter data to provide insight into their usage and extra services. Green Button has listed the following as recent innovative applications for customers:
- Insight – entrepreneur-created web portals analyse energy usage and provide actionable tips
- Heating and cooling – customised heating and cooling activities for savings and comfort
- Education – community and student energy efficiency competitions
- Retrofits – improved decision-support tools to facilitate energy efficiency retrofits
- Verification – measurement of energy efficiency investments
- Real estate – providing energy costs for tenants and/or new home purchasers
- Solar – optimising the size and cost effectiveness of rooftop solar panels.
There are also related examples from other industries such as credit card firms selling transaction data to digital advertising and other marketing companies. A real example of this is MasterCard Advisors, which launched its Information Services division around two-and-a-half years ago, and in recent months has been approaching media agency trading desks with an enticing offer: data representing 80 billion consumer purchases.
There is no doubt that smart meter business cases should also be updated as lessons are learnt through pilots and the early rollout stages. It may well be that benefits that were not originally thought of become the most valuable benefits in the long term, such as new innovative products and increased customer awareness of usage.
Evidence from the mandatory smart meter rollout in Victoria shows that the network planning, efficiency, and cost avoidance benefits were underestimated and there were many benefits that were not even thought of before the rollout began. For example, tens of thousands of wiring faults were detected when the meters were being installed; with the detection saving multiple house fires and possibly lives.
On the other hand, there were many issues raised before the rollout that have since become redundant. Principle amongst these were privacy concerns about who had access to the data and what it could be used for. A recent Accenture survey showed that 72 per cent of energy users are comfortable sharing information about their household energy usage with their energy provider. The evidence suggests that the majority of people are keen to allow others to use their consumption data if it provides them with a direct benefit.
The water industry runs the risk of seriously falling behind in the customer offerings stakes. Water prices have increased significantly in recent years to pay for infrastructure and desalination plants on the back of the millennium drought, but have missed the chance to offer customers extra insight, control, and convenience. This has already shown up in customer satisfaction surveys, with a recent Accenture Water customer survey showing 77 per cent of customers surveyed wanted more detailed consumption information delivered by their water provider.
Drawing from Accenture’s global experience, we would recommend thinking beyond the obvious and really considering:
- Monetising more benefits and including more than direct cashable benefits in net present values.
- Learning from other global rollouts, particularly how the data can be used and what customers are doing with it.
- Paying close attention to hardship customer needs. For example, a change in billing frequency can significantly impact payment reliability and help utilities’ working capital.
- Considering smart meter data not in isolation but as consumer’s value convergence of utility data – water, electricity, and gas.
- Looking for partnership arrangements to help monetise the data.
- Estimating customer and social benefits from the usage of data can be more important than extending asset life and deferring investment.
- Not forgetting about the value of innovation spurred from smart meter data.
Consumers continue to say they want control, convenience and reduced cost of utility services. Usage of smart meter data is only limited by imagination and the rollout of smart meters is prevented by narrow business cases which all too often fail to understand the value of the data.
As utilities around the world continue the adoption of smart metering technologies and seek to obtain the next generation of benefits from these initiatives, Australian utilities need to keep pace or run the risk of falling seriously behind. This will leave the market wide open for others who see the potential of realising new revenue streams from smarter infrastructure. Old newspapers are no longer good enough. Customers want the app.