Digital channels allow utilities firms to redefine customer engagement

ACS explains how digital channels can allow utilities to enact lightning-fast decisions and keep consumers engaged

To survive in an increasingly competitive market, utilities firms must adapt modern technology to suit customer needs

Innovative utilities are discovering that, when they tap into self-service and automated mobile communication channels to connect their customers and their employees with mission-critical information systems, they are able to significantly improve operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. At a recent DistribuTECH annual conference, utility technology provider Advanced Control Systems (ACS) said JD Power and Associates, and Standard & Poor’s had researched the relationship between customer satisfaction and improved electric utility financials.

“When consumers experience an interruption in service, the first thing utilities need to get better at is providing comprehensive information about the outage – including the cause and extent of the outage, when power will be restored, and status of work crews and any equipment that needs to be replaced”, said Jeff Conklin, Vice President of JD Power’s utility practice. “And the best utilities are now getting proactive with outage information by providing it to the consumer at the contact point of their choice.”

To survive, utilities know they must adapt smart technology for day-to-day business operations on the grid. Our ever-increasing reliance on electricity takes the energy management industry to the grid-edge as utilities undergo a massive transformation. New and advanced utility automation systems are taking the centre stage in the global electric power industry and, now more than ever, technology is allowing direct, personal engagement of utility consumers. Not only does this enable more customer-informed decisions to be made about energy usage, but it also allows the utility to leverage grid-edge information to further enhance its entire network efficiency.

Utilities can easily optimise the channels consumers use every day (i.e. the web, mobiles and social media) to push rich, relevant and timely information to their customers

“We understand how critical energy management is, and that the industry is challenged with securing the supply of energy to consumers in a sustainable way”, said Kevin Sullivan, ACS CEO. “We are committed to a long-term relationship as a trusted partner.”

Where utilities need to focus
According to Sullivan, the keys to a successful enterprise include three areas of thought leadership: a real-time integrated platform; advanced energy management; and the human grid.

Energy is delivered at near light speed and utilities can be more efficient with an open, precise, real-time information system management platform, enabling them to make the energy management decisions that must occur in real-time. “The edges of our grid are changing with the deployment of disruptive technologies, such as distributed energy resources, that also require integration and control in real-time”, said Sullivan. “It is critical for utilities to address current and future grid operational challenges.”

According to ACS Chief Technology Officer Gary Ockwell: “As the energy industry has developed and evolved, solution providers must help utilities face different complications while managing network, new business, operational and technical challenges.”

In order to manage current and future grids, advanced applications must be able to rapidly adapt to a continuously evolving environment with an ever greater number of disruptive events, from extreme weather conditions to forced outages. Many utilities across the planet lose revenue because of fraud and revenue leakage; these non-technical losses occur because of meter manipulation, reading errors, late payments and under- or over-charging. The cost-analysis to justify utility automation is overwhelming, but most C-suite executives may opt-out because it’s extremely expensive.

More than ever before, technology is allowing direct, personal engagement of the utility consumer. Not only does this enable more informed decisions on the part of the consumer regarding energy usage, but it also allows the utility to leverage grid-edge information to further enhance the overall efficiency of the network.

“This personal engagement optimises the use of existing assets, including distributed resources, while minimising the environmental impact of network operations”, said Ockwell. “Leveraging advanced controls with environmentally responsible behaviour through the human connection is what we call ‘the Human Grid’.”

The most cost-effective and productive way for utilities to integrate real-time solutions is during power outages. To maximise smart grid opportunities, utilities must proactively encourage cooperation between their crews and their customers while leveraging the Human Grid, using multiple communication channels on a customer-engagement platform. The main effort is helping utilities improve customer cooperation while deepening customer engagement every day, not just during outages. “If the customer is satisfied with the utility providing grid reliability, with a small automation investment, the utility can transform a satisfied customer into a cooperative and participating consumer”, said Ockwell. “So, when electricity is unavailable, the consumer accesses the same communication tools used during ‘business as usual’ times… with a full mobile application using iOS, Android or BlackBerry operating systems, in the form of interactive SMS texts, emails, social media, or as a web portal full of engaging outage-management and energy-efficiency tools.”

In other words, utilities can easily optimise the channels consumers use every day (i.e. the web, mobiles and social media) to push rich, relevant and timely information to their customers. They can do this in real time as informative outage reports, utility bill updates, and even load information for both the system and utility customer.

Information from the grid-edge

“We proactively meet utility expectations with technology efficiency, while adding value to customer sustainable solutions through an innovative suite of extensive offerings”, said Ockwell. “Most utilities typically seek to minimise complexity, treating primary smart-grid technology as a solo deployment, aimed at meeting a single specific business objective. Most utilities are pleased to improve reliability through self-healing, [and] cost reduction through loss minimisation, or deploying a greater share of renewables.”

“We encourage utilities to enable consumers to leverage grid-edge information to enhance two-way communications and allow everyone to have energy control at their fingertips”, said Sullivan.

To provide the most cost-effective solution seamlessly so consumers can experience the best customer satisfaction, utilities can implement smart-grid optimisation to provide a value proposition in an evolving environment with ever increasing disruptive events. The ability to manage real-time events and effectively adapt and restore power while maintaining grid stability is of paramount importance to the industry in every corner of the world.

Customer engagement
“Now more than ever, innovative technology is allowing direct, personal engagement of the utility consumer”, said Ockwell. “Meter data systems with their entire organisation and customer base allow utilities to leverage grid-edge information to further enhance the overall efficiency of the electricity network.”

Smart utilities can effectively adopt a mobile enterprise platform with single easy integration that is accessible through all major mobile and remote channels. This personal customer engagement with mobile and social media optimises the use of existing assets, including distributed resources, while maintaining the environmental impact of network operations.

Innovative technology combined with engaged customers, bridges a reality of efficiency and trust, serving communities around the world. The benefits provide a win-win opportunity for improving customer satisfaction, while proving fast, reliable service can also be cost-effective. Communication devices uploaded with apps integrated with utility information (SCADA, distribution management, outage management, feeder automation, substation automation) yield cost-savings for utilities and each one of us.

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