Is Data Controlling Your Gas, Water And Electricity?

New technology is providing utility companies with new opportunities


Data now controls everything we do, from the way we see the news online through to how we use public transport networks. It is something that has become so ingrained in our lives that we barely notice it any more, but is the foundation of everything we do.

However, it hasn’t yet completely penetrated the single most important elements of our society - utilities.

They are certainly not the most exciting elements of our lives, but like data, make up the core foundation of what we do. Without electricity, water, and gas/oil, we would not be able to do anything, let alone utilize data to achieve what we have. But now there are several companies who are forging ahead to improve their services with the use of data in order to help save resources, improve customer experiences, and increase profits without increasing prices.

The UK has been at the forefront of this move, with the Department of Energy and Climate Change planning on installing 53 million smart meters by 2020. This move is going to open up a significant opportunity for companies, allowing them to collect a huge amount of data on millions of households. It is a real challenge given the huge increase in the data being collected, with Stuart Ravens, principal analyst, energy and sustainability technology with Ovum claiming ‘At the moment we could have a meter reading every year. With smart meters, if they read every half hour, that’s 17,500 meter readings a year. When we talk about ‘exponential’ growth of data, that is really exponential. And that is just considering the billing side.’

However, it is going to create significant opportunities, with bills becoming more accurate for customers and energy companies having the ability to optimize production, minimizing waste, pollution and saving money. Using predictive modelling it can even allow energy companies to know in advance when more energy is going to be needed, allowing them to prepare adequately. Indeed, this isn’t a phenomenon found only in the UK, as it’s been predicted there will be 200 million smart meters across the US by the end of 2016.

Use of smart meters in millions of homes is clearly high-tech, bringing together huge amounts of data to help electricity companies, but it is also having a huge impact in a more traditional area - line clearing.

Regardless of where you live, the conditions around you or even the power supplier you have, everybody has experienced power cuts. These are caused by a variety of elements, but 70% of all power outages in the US are weather related. This could be anything from freezing temperatures and floods, through to sandstorms. However, one of the biggest is trees falling on lines. This is especially dangerous during storms, where the rain caught on leaves adds additional weight to trees and high winds increases the chances of them falling. To try and combat this, electricity companies pay millions per year to cut these trees back, but with analytics they can more accurately predict where work is needed.

One company at the forefront of this is Autogrid, who pull in a huge amount of data that is then processed and used to help utility companies. For instance, Florida Power & Light is using this technology to predict when specific areas of trees need to be cut back to avoid power outages. It is a company in demand, having already raised over $40 million over their past two funding cycles, showing that there is considerable interest in the work they’re doing.

However, utilities are not only about power, water is also an essential part of the utility network and here big data is also having a profound impact. An example of this is Yorkshire Water in the UK, who run 62,000 miles of water and sewerage mains. They have utilized data to try and avoid flooding and pollution in its network by identifying areas that are prone to blockages and sending engineers preemptively, rather than needing to fix a problem when it's already causing issues.

We have similarly seen results with preemptive work conducted on oil and gas lines thanks to the IoT. In the US there are 2.4 million miles of pipelines, making regular maintenance across the entire network almost impossible. However, thanks to the use of sensors throughout the network, many companies can now see where problems may be occurring through elements such as the speed of flow or slight pressure fluctuations in specific areas. It means that rather than sending engineering teams up and down the pipelines in order to find potential issues, they can be sent to specific areas where they know work needs to be done. This has the effect of saving significant amounts of time, money and reducing the chances of accidents or downtime.

We are currently in the early stages of the adoption of big data amongst utility companies, but the impact it is already having and the potential it has for the future means that it is a trend that is only going to increase moving forward. 

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