It took Opower nine years to reach its first $1 billion in energy efficiency savings. It's taken two years, since its 2016 acquisition by Oracle, to reach the second billion.
So what's been happening at the company since the acquisition?
Opower has lost its co-founders Daniel Yates and Alex Laskey. Both of their LinkedIn pages show their roles as executives ended in mid-2017, and both have since loaned their talents, and wealth, to other clean energy technology ventures. Opower employees expressed their displeasure with becoming part of Oracle at sites like Glassdoor, and reports indicate that many have left since the acquisition.
But the long-range value of Opower to Oracle lies in what’s ahead, not what’s behind. And on that front, the $2 billion in efficiency gains announced earlier this month is the result of a much broader set of technology and business implementations. The company now covers 60 million households, and growing.
“Our acquisition amplified our reach, and added further credibility to our vision,” Scott Neuman, group vice president of global operations for Oracle Utilities and a longtime Opower executive, said in an interview.
In particular, Opower’s cloud software architecture fit in well with Oracle Utilities' emphasis on cloud technology development as part of a nearly triple-digit million dollar R&D budget, he said. “We were the largest cloud offering in the utility space — that’s precisely why Oracle Utilities was so interested in us.”
Oracle, which also bought cloud-based meter data management software provider DataRaker in 2012, has long been a champion of utilities moving to the cloud. The actual appetite from utilities has been slowed by institutional inertia and regulatory complications.
But the clear benefits of tapping cheap, massive computing power has increasingly brought utilities to the cloud, starting with analytics for the increasingly large amounts of data coming from the modern energy enterprise, and moving into more core utility operations such as customer information systems, where Oracle Utilities' software holds a dominant U.S. market share.
Breaking down Opower’s “cloud service” business lines
Opower’s business lines today are concentrated on the customer side of the equation, in products and platforms facing the customers themselves, as well as the utility operators and planners that interact with them. Each is now dubbed a “cloud service,” indicating its always-on reliability, constant upgradeability, and customization capabilities for individual clients, Neuman said.
The first, Oracle Utilities Opower Energy Efficiency Cloud Service, is the classic paper mailed reports business, which still makes up a majority of Opower’s business and energy efficiency achieved. But it also includes the digital channels — email, text and voicemail alerts.
“Traditionally utility EE has been paper-based, but we’ve been for a couple years testing a lot of ways to deliver digital communications to deliver meaningful efficiency savings, sometimes in lieu of paper,” Neuman said.
This combination of paper plus digital is central to Opower’s behavioral demand response, now called Oracle Utilities Opower Peak Management Cloud Service, which uses text and phone alerts on the day of peak events, plus immediate followup with email and text to tell people how much money they made.
Baltimore Gas & Electric was the first customer of Opower’s behavioral demand response, and has shown the potential to reduce customer peak loads by as much as 18 percent. We’ve covered the results in some depth, as well as comparisons to other emerging behavioral-based grid services, at GTM Squared. Other utility customers include Chicago utility Commonwealth Edison, California municipal utility Glendale Water & Power, and Michigan utility Consumers Energy.
While paper reports remain its primary route to efficiency gains, Opower’s digital efforts support a much broader array of customer services. An early example was Exelon’s Smart Energy Services initiative for Baltimore Gas & Electric, PECO and Commonwealth Edison. The program crunches customer data to create personalized and targeted marketing to encourage customers to sign up for autopay or paperless billing, set high-bill alert targets, and take part in rewards-based loyalty programs.
These types of applications are now codified in several of Opower’s cloud services. The Oracle Utilities Opower Proactive Alerts Cloud Service enables an array of alerts, from real-time reminders of upcoming demand response events to mid-month warnings that customers are on a path to exceed their monthly budgets. Oracle Utilities Opower Digital Self Service Cloud Service encourages customers to go online to solve their billing, interconnection and other service needs. And the Oracle Utilities Opower Customer Service Interface Cloud Service is built for utility customer service representatives to use, tapping the same wealth of data that populates its customer-facing services.
“That [Opower] team is continuing to work on these products, such as demand-side management and digital self-service,” Neuman said.
Next steps: International markets, seamless customer experience, and future grid services
Opower had some grand international ambitions in its early years, announcing plans to expand to Europe, Asia and beyond. Some of those efforts haven’t borne fruit, as evidenced by the lack of news on its attempts to gain market share in Europe’s competitive energy markets.
But in Japan, Opower has seen some recent activity that could lead to greater things. It first entered the market with Tokyo utility Tepco in 2013, supplying digital customer energy portals. It followed up in 2017 with a 300,000-residence trial with five utilities that included paper reports, where “early savings have met or exceeded our responses” as compared to typical U.S. rollouts, Neuman said.
Last month, Opower landed its second international opening in India, with a U.S. Trade and Development Agency grant supporting the rollout of behavioral energy efficiency to customers of distribution company BSES Rajdhani Power Limited. The scale and terms of the project have yet to be announced.
Opower is also working on “creating a complete and seamless customer experience,” fed by the company’s massive database of customer energy usage and behavior data. “All our web experiences have been redesigned from the ground up by our UX team," enabling utilities to “basically drop a menu of widgets into any existing page with any modern content management system.”
“The flexibility to embed a widget or an insight into a particular page allows you to track the web analytics,” he said. “You can see how customers are going and you can embed the insights that matter the most on the page. When that information is integrated, it substantially increases customer engagement. We’ve seen four to six times the number of active users engaging with their energy insights, when presented with personalized and up-to-date information," Neuman said.
“This is the orientation that we bring to all of our software. It’s not just the link — it’s the call to action. If you’re sending out a high bill, that’s a call to action to go online to understand your usage. We’ve found those interactions have high click-though rates, which makes sense, because the customer is paying attention,” he said.
Opower’s third avowed focus is to “prepare for the grid of the future" — meaning a grid with many different distributed energy resources for customers to choose, and the inevitable front-end and back-end services to support their integration into the utility enterprise. While Opower isn’t doing distributed resource integration or demand response itself, it does intend to enable the customer-utility relationships to smooth that process, he said.
For example, while Opower no longer sells or supports its own smart thermostats, it is supporting the sale of others, using expertise in customer data and connectivity to boost existing smart thermostat sales of utility clients by up to 60 percent. It’s supporting time-of-use rate rollouts for utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric with rate comparison tools and advisory services, and is “working with a couple of clients on solar net metering data presentment,” since that’s something that yields a lot of customer calls and complaints.
The journey of Opower can no longer be measured by energy efficiency savings alone.