Utilities of all sizes have various smart grid projects underway, whether installing two-way digital smart meters, deploying self-healing distribution technology or integrating data across the business operation.

And then there are a handful of utilities that are doing all of these things. In a new report, Utility Smart Grid Outlook in North America 2013: Technologies, Strategies & Case Studies, Emma Ritch, a senior smart grid analyst with GTM Research, ranks 40 utilities that serve one-third of U.S. electricity customers, based on their current adoption of smart grid technologies.

CenterPoint Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric are tied for the top position with an overall average ranking of 4.2 out of a total five possible points, ranging from one for "exploratory" to five for" optimized" within five different categories.

“Mid-size and large utilities dominated the list of those with the highest ratings in smart grid maturity, but there were also a few standouts with about 50,000 electric customers,” Ritch said. “Across the board, these utilities are aggressively investigating and testing new technologies to improve the efficiency and reliability of energy delivery, and learning about all of their experiences can benefit the industry at-large.”

The maturity rankings were based on both ambitions and implementation, according to Ritch. The top ten had an average score of 3.82, compared to the 2.79 average of all 40 utilities evaluated.

The analysis was based on five categories: data management and analytics; smart grid portfolio; enterprise management and integration; communications networks; and consumer engagement.

Smart grid portfolio had the highest average maturity ranking of the five categories among all utilities, as well as the top ten. The largest gaps between the top ten and others were in two categories: smart grid portfolio and data management and analytics. Robust smart grid portfolios, often with a ten- or twenty-year timeline, are essential. “A full smart grid roadmap forces utilities to address questions of integration and data analytics in the early stages of deployment,” writes Ritch, “resulting in more operational benefits to the utility in the long term."

Data management and analytics had one of the largest gaps between the top and bottom, but also had one of the lowest average maturity rankings amongst the categories. Many utilities are just beginning to collect, filter, store and analyze data coming off of their smart systems. Some utilities that are deploying smart meters do not have a meter data management system. Many utilities are collecting data off of meters but not doing anything with it.

“It’s typical for a utility to start developing a data analytics plan once the data volumes begin to overwhelm its team,” Ritch said. “But the most mature utilities are deploying advanced data warehouses and service-oriented architectures in the early stages to capture and share data across systems, while building analytics tools in-house when they can’t find the right solutions from vendors.”

One of the leaders in data management and analytics is Silicon Valley Power. Despite the fact that the utility has just started deploying smart meters, SVP has a plan for an advanced data management system. It is working on building a real-time dynamic system model that will help with everything from revenue protection to identifying unexpected customer solar loads.

“All the new data generated by smart grid technologies can be extremely valuable in improving operations, but there are two things preventing most utilities from effectively collecting and utilizing it. First, the necessary bandwidth to transmit tens of millions of data points each day can strain private utility networks or come at a very high price over public carrier networks,” Ritch said. “Second, data becomes useless if the utility feels overwhelmed and has no filtering or analytics tools to help it make sense of the new information it's receiving.”

Another area where no utility earned the highest ranking was consumer engagement, with an average score of 3.3. Although consumer engagement is a favorite topic at smart grid conferences, utilities are just beginning to educate and engage most of their customers.

Whether utilities like it or not, bringing customers into the fold is becoming increasingly necessary. The most mature utilities in this category go far beyond offerings like online payment systems. Arizona Public Service, for instance, has a popular time-of-use rate, prepay, smartphone apps and an online web portal with outage information, service requests and payment options.

“It’s certainly a step in the right direction to provide customers with more information about power usage and outages, but utilities that are successful in consumer engagement are personalizing the experience,” Ritch said. “The most successful utilities allow customers to choose how often and what types of information to receive, as well as providing options such as text messages, phone calls, online portals, emails and home mailings.”

Communications, on the other hand, was a category that had the smallest gap between the most advanced and other utilities. Still, no utility earned a top score. Ritch found that this could be one of the most difficult areas for utilities to mature in given the lack of interoperability between vendors. Not enough utilities are building communications networks to meet an end-to-end smart grid plan; many are instead just building out communications for specific applications.

“Reliable communication networks are a top priority in the smart grid, so utilities will continue to spend in this area as their needs evolve,” Ritch said. “However, the most advanced utilities in this category often have the most efficient spending plans for communications because they’re integrating and optimizing their networks, which creates workforce and operational efficiencies.”

Lastly, enterprise management and integration is one area where most utilities have moved beyond the lowest ranking. Even so, “homegrown solutions that can include using Excel to track equipment deployment and maintenance are still the norm at a surprising number of utilities today,” writes Ritch. Only a few utilities have fully integrated service-oriented architecture platforms that integrate all the business and operational data.

Although some utilities, like the big three in California, will likely stay in the top of the pack, even just one year from now, the maturity rankings could change significantly.

“The future of the smart grid is real-time integration and analytics that improve the reliability and efficiency of power delivery. Utilities are making significant progress toward this goal, but there are still many technological and logistical barriers to overcome,” Ritch said. “The industry at large can reach that point of optimization much more quickly by taking lessons from the experiences -- both good and bad -- of these utilities."

Watch EVP and COO David Wade discuss EPB's smart grid deployment at The Networked Grid 2013: