For the past several years, Greentech Media has been focusing its efforts on defining and measuring the impact of the “soft grid” -- a broad term encompassing big-data management and analytics, utility systems integration, and the other IT imperatives of the smart-grid-enabled utility enterprise.

At Greentech Media’s upcoming Soft Grid 2013 conference in San Francisco, we’ll be taking this analysis and insight to a live audience. On Oct. 1-2, GTM Research analysts and a host of utility and IT executives and experts will meet at Pacific Gas & Electric headquarters to hash out the promises, challenges and real-world implementations of soft grid that are taking place across the globe.

GTM Research has pegged the value of the global utility data analytics market at a cumulative $20 billion between 2013 and 2020, growing from an annual spend of $1.1 billion this year to nearly $4 billion by decade’s end. But it has also identified key challenges on the way to that growth. Beyond the technical issues involved in renovating or replacing legacy utility IT systems to manage and optimize the flood of new data coming at utilities, there are also regulatory and internal business-as-usual roadblocks to overcome, if all this disparate data is to be captured, analyzed and converted into business value.

Next week’s conference will include a number of presentations on real-world big data efforts from utilities including Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), Duke Energy, Ameren and host PG&E. It will also include some very timely panel discussions on how utilities, vendors and other industry thought leaders are planning for the changes underway. Here’s a quick breakdown.

1) Grid Analytics: The First Big Opportunity for Data-to-Value Applications. GTM Research predicts that the fastest growth in the soft grid will come in the field of grid analytics, with a projected $8.7 billion to be spent in that field between now and 2020. That’s because grid analytics, unlike customer-facing or broader enterprise IT investments, fit within existing utility frameworks for reducing capital and operations costs, GTM Research notes.

Outage management, voltage optimization, and asset management are the three most widely deployed grid analytics solutions being deployed today. On Wednesday, GTM Research smart grid analyst Ben Kellison will moderate a panel, entitled “Power in Numbers: Distribution Grid Optimization via Software Control and Analytics,” that takes a look at developments on this front, from modeling and simulation for asset planning, to real-world outage and repair crew management and energy theft detection activities, featuring panelists from MachineShop, EnerNex, GRIDiant, Ericsson and Snohomish County PUD.   

The data being collected by existing smart grid assets such as smart meters and digital protection and control equipment, combined with the communications and software to manage and support them, is driving a revolution in these traditional grid operations. At the same time, utilities are facing a new class of grid assets that don’t fit so smoothly into existing modes of operations.

Those include distributed energy resources, a term that can include everything from isolated rooftop solar panels and energy storage systems to microgrids that balance local supply and demand from a myriad of sources. “Integrating, Optimizing and Managing Data for Distributed Energy Resource Management,” a Wednesday panel moderated by Greentech Media president and co-founder Rick Thompson, will include panelists from a host of vendors offering solutions on this front, including Varentec, 1Energy Systems, Demand Energy Networks and GELI.

2) Customer Data Analytics: Meeting End Users at the Point of Optimization. GTM Research believes that customer-facing analytics offer nearly as much promise as do grid-facing applications, with a cumulative investment potential of $7.1 billion between now and 2020. The top three high-value applications on the customer front include revenue protection, granular load forecasting, and detailed customer segmentation.

But utilities also face a host of challenges in justifying -- and getting regulators to justify -- investments in customer-facing analytics, given that changing consumer behavior isn’t directly within utility control. Still, with billions of dollars invested in smart meter (AMI) networks that promise customer service and cost improvements as a big part of their business case, utilities are eager to find the right combination of technologies and methods to capture that latent value.  

That’s the subject of a Tuesday panel, entitled “Last-Mile Analytics: Insights Into AMI, DG, EV and Beyond,” moderated by GTM Research smart grid analyst Zach Pollock. Representatives from GE Digital Energy, Landis+Gyr, Silver Spring Networks, GridMaven and San Diego Gas & Electric will discuss how they’re pushing the boundaries of AMI networks beyond core meter-to-cash functions, and into managing distributed generation, electric vehicle charging, and a host of technically challenging, yet critical, functions of the future.  

Beyond managing customer devices, there’s the tricky matter of helping customers themselves become more data-driven in how they consume power and manage their own power use. Wednesday’s panel, “Data, Analytics and the Future of Consumer Engagement,” will give representatives from SAS, PayGo, Opower and Siemens company eMeter, a chance to describe how they’re using data and technology to match utility variable pricing programs and marketing campaigns to ever-finer insights into how customers interact with, and alter their behavior based on, these new forms of communications and information sharing.

3) The Utility Enterprise: The Big Picture for Big Data. Tying all of a utility’s big data and IT integration efforts together falls into the rubric of enterprise analytics, a market that GTM Research predicts will garner $4.2 billion in investment over the remaining course of the decade.

While this represents a smaller total spend than the categories of grid-facing and customer-facing analytics, it’s important to remember that “[m]any of these analytics and/or capabilities will rely on the same data, such that sound enterprise IT architecture design will play a vital role in their success,” GTM Research notes.

That means that utilities must be planning their enterprise analytics moves at the same time as they’re executing their more specific grid- and customer-facing deployments, with an eye on making the most of this increasing flood of data for multiple long-term objectives.

Tuesday’s panel, entitled “Developing the Business Case for Big Data and Analytics for a Modern Grid,” will tackle these broad questions in terms of the investment decisions utilities are facing today. Featuring representatives from IT giants Oracle and EMC, as well as innovative startups EcoFactor and AutoGrid, this discussion will cover such issues as whether to shift certain utility business operations to a cloud computing framework and how to sell analytics capabilities to utility departments, as well as other issues. Jeff Nichols, director of information security and management for The Sempra Energy Utilities, which owns San Diego Gas & Electric & Southern CA Gas Company, will be on hand to test vendor propositions against the requirements of one of the country’s most forward-thinking utility groups.

At the same time, utilities are facing an existential challenge in adapting to a new world that includes performance-based ratemaking, new measurement and verification (M&V) models, and the shift of passive utility consumers to energy-generating, grid-interacting “prosumers.” These shifts require utilities to manage technological, regulatory, social and environmental imperatives in ways that may lead them to transform into far different entities than they are today -- or may threaten their very existence.   

That’s the framework of a Wednesday panel that I’ll be moderating, entitled “Enabling the Utility of the Future Through Technology, People and Information.” We’ll be defining these terms broadly, and asking a broad selection of panelists to weigh in, including: Jack Azagury, global managing director for Accenture Smart Grid services; Elisabeth Brinton, chief customer officer of Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD); Ed Davalos, AT&T’s Utility/Smart Grid product management lead; Steve Ehrlich, senior VP of marketing at Space-Time Insight; and Dave Hamilton, director for clean energy for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.