As the California Independent System Operator asks for voluntary cooperation in reducing energy use as it climbs toward peak usage, Greentech Media opened up its conference, The Soft Grid 2012, in San Francisco to discuss how big data is coming to the utility world and what it means for grid reliability and customer service.

Imagine a future where the ISO or individual utility doesn’t have to issue a blanket call for action to conserve power. Instead, integrated systems could dynamically manage the flow and use of power to cut where needed, without customers ever noticing. That’s the promise of big data analytics in the world of electrical power, but it’s not here yet.

In most utilities, information technology and operational technology are still siloed. But that’s about to change. To prepare, or adapt, to the onslaught of data coming off everything from smart meters to synchrophasors to smart transformers, utilities are looking for ways to collect and crunch the data in meaningful ways.

For most utilities, it’s scary stuff. The push into analytical platforms that can provide value from the data is coming faster than many utilities are ready for. During the Tuesday opening keynote at The Soft Grid, David Leeds, chief smart grid analyst for GTM Research, offered ten predictions and trends for what we’ll see in the software and smart grid market in coming years.

1.    Most companies that will lead the utility analytics transformation are not in this market today. In fact, if you look around, many of the most cutting-edge companies that are capitalizing on object-oriented database technology, such as Versant, are just starting to look at the utility space. Other companies that are active in data-heavy, security-minded industries, like the financial sector, will also make a play in the utility sector.

2.     Meter data management is just the beginning, and distributed generation, electric vehicles and networked grid assets are coming up next. Unlike meters, which only need to send data a few times a day at most, grid assets will talk in real-time to grid operators, or talk amongst themselves. This will mean not only the need the collect and analyze the data, but the networks to move it all through without latency issues for critical assets.

3.     Utilities won’t be able to keep up with large-scale distributed data creation unless they have large-scale distributed data storage. “Where tech companies have a high level of confidence in big data, utilities haven’t embraced that there’s new architectures they can leverage,” said Leeds. He noted that companies like Facebook and Amazon change their platforms every few years and invest heavily in IT -- something that remains underestimated by utilities, but shouldn’t be.


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4.     Open-source platforms, like Hadoop, have certainly arrived when it comes to the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of computers. Legacy players -- including IBM, Oracle, EMC and Microsoft -- are all building solutions around these new platforms. But it will likely be some of the startups, especially ones that build utility-specific applications, that could win in the smart grid market.

5.     Even though there’s a lot of exciting technology out there in big data, there aren’t enough engineers with deep knowledge of the technology like Hadoop. For utilities, this means picking the right partners that have the depth of knowledge about the technology -- and the utility space -- to build the right solutions.

6.     While money has shriveled up for many areas of greentech investment, big data infrastructure is garnering big money. In the last few years, Cloudera and Hortonworks have raised nearly $90 million in funding. The space is ripe for application innovation.

7.     Utilities look toward the cloud. Many utilities, especially cash-strapped munis and co-ops, would love to do interesting things with their distribution circuits as they become more automated. For those utilities, the right cloud solutions, which could come at a lower cost, are an ideal solution.

8.     Large-scale enterprise software-as-a-service is becoming a reality. Leeds noted that many utilities like to think they have sophisticated analytics today, but they don’t. “Mostly, it’s reporting tools,” he noted. “It’s not real-time predictive analytics that we’re talking about today.” Of course, that’s changing. Utilities will spend about $1.6 billion next year on software for the grid. In a later keynote, Karen Austin, SVP and chief information officer at Pacific Gas & Electric, talked about investments in fault location isolation and service restoration (FLISR), which have helped reduce outages by 70 percent in some areas. But examples of FLISR in action are still the exception and not the norm for most North American utilities. 

9.     One of the most important ways big data will affect utilities is in their customer relations. A lot has been made of how smart grid changes the customer-utility dynamic, but not much has happened yet. “Big data and analytics will trump anything that’s happened in smart grid,” said Leeds. “Analytics can help give some ROI to customers.” Early efforts, like the Green Button initiative, which gives customers their smart meter data in a standardized format, will help customers have more visibility into their energy use. But it’s sophisticated analytics -- from helping the distribution grid manage increasing amounts of rooftop PV to helping the utility design new rates that save people money while cutting peak -- that will truly transform a utility’s approach to customer service. PG&E’s Austin noted that the utility is already getting 100 billion reads per year off of its nine million smart meters. That information is allowing for faster restoration, and that’s just the beginning.

10.   Finally, the software revolution that is coming to utilities is only as valuable as its ability to integrate, said Leeds. The biggest challenges to utilities are the silos within the companies. The most successful utilities in smart grid have broken down those silos -- especially between IT and OT. For starters, Leeds cautioned utilities that they need to ask the right questions as they put in new systems that will give them the flexibility to expand applications in the future.