Kevin Dasso had a lot of sensible, illustrative things to say when he took the stage at The Soft Grid conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. 

The director of technology and information strategy at Pacific Gas & Electric talked about the utility’s effort to morph into an information-driven culture with analytical capabilities enabled by the reams of data coming off of sychrophasors, smart meters and other digital grid devices.

“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should,” he told the audience. Utilities have to start with defining the problem they want to solve, and only then turn to the data. He drew from some of PG&E’s lessons learned, including leveraging data in the areas of distribution transformer modeling, tree trimming, load forecasting and consumer engagement.

If you’re wondering where the iPhone comes into his presentation, it doesn’t.

That came next, when David Merkoski, a partner in the design firm Greenstart, took the stage. “The smart grid, or whatever you want to call it, is a complex product that is software and hardware that affords a service: electricity,” he said. “It is not as simple as an iPhone, but it is a product.”

Merkoski went on to note that for the first time, utilities are facing competition. He wasn’t talking about deregulated markets; he was talking about products that help people make, store or control electricity, such as rooftop solar or a Nest thermostat. "Now you’re being compared to those entities,” he said. “You have a competition mentally.”

Dasso of PG&E spoke about the 3 terabytes of data coming in every month from smart meters, then noted that only one-third of the 15,000 electric-vehicle drivers in PG&E’s territory signed up for the EV charging rate the utility offers. He said that by leveraging the interval data from meters, they might be able to effectively reach those customers.

Although Merkoski did not address Dasso’s presentation specifically, he argued that is exactly the issue. Utilities are developing solutions to solve their own problems. They have gone from seeing users as ratepayers to seeing them as customers, and are now focusing on customer engagement. “But the question is, what are we asking them to engage with?” asked Merkoski.

Are utilities asking them to join the rate scheme because it will help with how the local transformer is loaded, or because it’s a better deal for the customer? “DG, DR, TOU,” he said. “That’s your problem, not their problem.”

Utilities, in some instances, are waking up to this. Time-of-use rates are increasingly sold as consumer-driven options that can save money. SMUD has put customer satisfaction at the center of every smart grid initiative it has. But there is so much further to go.

Merkoski challenged the utilities in the audience and the companies that serve them to think critically about how to address their users’ needs. One of the problems is that consumers are already used to having a reliable electricity supply in the U.S. “The light switch works,” said Merkoski.

One issue that Merkoski didn’t touch was regulation. For PG&E -- or any other investor-owned utility -- becoming a more consumer-oriented services company and making investment on the backend will take more than just bringing a user-design expert in-house. In many places, it will take nothing short of a regulatory overhaul of a 100-year-old business model.

Watch Merkoski's presentation at Soft Grid 2013:

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