Today’s smartphone-equipped, attention-span-starved consumers are inundated with data all day long, keeping up with family and friends, running their professional and business lives, and staying up to date with the latest in green technology news or celebrity gossip. All of this data comes to us in as close to real time as possible, making us demanding consumers of information indeed.

But the smart grid hasn’t delivered home energy data that fast. Today’s smart meter networks and Green Button-enabled consumer energy portals typically deliver energy usage that’s at least 24 hours old. That’s useful for those people who like to pore over charts to plot their household energy efficiency, but let’s face it, most of us aren’t that person.

Colorado municipal utility Fort Collins Utilities is trying a different approach: speeding up the smart-meter-to-back-office-data collection loop, and putting it out to customers every 15 minutes. That might be fast enough to get people involved in energy on a day-to-day basis, if it’s accurate and comes along with information on how they can save money in the process.

That’s the goal that Siemens has set for itself with Fort Collins, which last week became the first utility in the world to launch that company's Energy Engage Mobile application to customers. It’s the latest customer engagement platform from eMeter, the meter data management software startup that Siemens bought in 2011, which it has since turned into a core part of its integrated smart grid software vision.

Fort Collins is a long-time customer of eMeter’s EnergyIP platform to manage the data coming from its 100,000 smart electric and water meters installed at homes, businesses and schools throughout the city. But like most other utilities in the country, Fort Collins had been pulling data from those smart meters in hourly increments, consolidating it into 8-hour blocks, and then turning it around to customers the next day.

These are speeds set by the imperatives of the utility’s billing department, not by the desires of smartphone-enabled consumers. Reconfiguring the smart-meter-to-MDMS system to pull data faster is a complex task, but one that eMeter has built into its EnergyIP platform, as Lisa Caswell, eMeter president, explained in an interview last week.

“The reason we’re able to do it is because of the pace we can get information from the EnergyIP system,” she said. “The utility actually speeds up the rate at which they start processing data through the eMeter system,” and in the case of Fort Collins, it was able to deliver 15-minute electric usage interval data and hourly water meter reads.

The speed of the data loop may vary depending on the individual utility, she noted, and it can range from 15 minutes to an hour. That’s why nobody is claiming that the system operates in “real time,” she said. Instead, eMeter is aiming for “near-real-time” data, she said -- a term of art that has different definitions in various pockets of the smart grid industry.

“It’s not like you’re going to walk into a room, turn on a light, and watch your phone record the change in energy consumption,” she said. But the faster the data comes, the more likely utility customers are to pay attention to it, particularly if it’s paired with opportunities to save money, she said.

“Every customer has a mobile device and thinks about it,” she said. Faster data is just one feature that could engage those customers with a utility’s broader outreach and marketing strategy, whether it’s to ask them to turn down their air conditioners via remote control to save money in the next hour, or to consider a range of long-term energy efficiency investments.

But there is a world of functions beyond efficiency to consider, she added. “You can start thinking about the extensibility of a mobile device” to provide emergency alerts of unexpected electricity or water usage when a customer’s away from home, for example. Water leaks are a huge expense, and catching them quickly can save a lot more in water damage than they do in wasted water, she noted.

One option for faster information comes through the home area network (HAN), which can connect in-home devices to second-by-second energy usage data. But it costs money to install the wireless hubs and gateways and the smart thermostats and appliances to talk to them, and so far we’ve seen little appetite from homeowners to spend money on technology like this.

The data coming from Energy Engage will have also been properly cleaned up and vetted according to the utility’s standards, something that home energy devices can’t promise, she said. Siemens is currently talking to several smart thermostat and home energy management providers about the potential for marrying their in-home connectivity with eMeter’s data management and verification

“The analytical piece is the other component,” she added. EMeter has a line of smart meter data analytics software packages that it’s offering both for its existing EnergyIP customers in the U.S. and abroad, and as part of a cloud-based offering that it launched last year. Some of these analytics tasks require near-real-time data, and because Siemens has built its Energy Engage software on the same platform that runs the broader MDM analytics, it’s possible to provide some of this insight to customers in near-real time, she said.

“EMeter has spent an inordinate amount of time and money to be able to do things in a synchronous way,” she noted, in order to enable the two-way control of meter functions across millions of endpoints. “That is something that is very unique to what we do -- that concept of being able to push and pull information. Many other systems are one-way,” at least in traditional MDM configurations, which are meant to deliver cleaned-up, “revenue-grade” data to back-office utility systems, not back to customers.

Eventually, Siemens and eMeter would like to provide energy disaggregation, gas leak detection and other such advanced analytics to utilities in the U.S. and Europe, Caswell said. Utilities need not already be eMeter customers to apply, she added. “We’ve got an analytics schema that’s fairly straightforward, with data you can get out of most any other system, whether it’s a head-end system or the MDM.”

Expect a lot more news on this quest for closer to real-time data from a host of smart meter and customer energy engagement players. Silver Spring Networks, Itron and Landis+Gyr are among the smart grid networking and MDM providers building faster data collection and dissemination into their newest products. Smart thermostats from Google’s Nest, Honeywell, Energate and many other contenders are bringing real-time, wirelessly connected data to homeowners, and utilities from California to Canada’s Ontario province are hooking up home energy devices to their smart meter networks.

Tags: consumers, data analytics, emeter, energate, grid edge, home area network, home energy, honeywell, itron, landis+gyr, meter data management, mobile, nest, real time, siemens