Data analytics providers targeting the smart grid -- think Oracle, EMC, SAP, IBM, SAS, Teradata and the like -- sometimes lament the fact that utilities aren’t yet diving into the big-data value stream with as much gusto as are other industries. That’s too bad, they say, because the return on investment from analyzing and gleaning business insight from big data far outweighs the initial cost.

Take the oft-cited figure from Nucleus Research, which reported in 2011 that an analysis of 60 business analytics deployments found that every dollar invested yielded an average benefit of $10.66 -- a nearly 11-to-1 ROI. We’ve seen that figure crop up in big-data vendor sales pitches across the spectrum, including to the utility sector.

But should utilities expect the same kind of returns from their own forays into big data analytics? Answering that question, it turns out, requires a more nuanced look at just how utilities turn data insight into value -- as well as the key differences that separate utility business imperatives from those of, say, the telecommunications or software industries, or retail and consumer electronics.

Attendees of Greentech Media’s Soft Grid 2013 conference next week in San Francisco will have a chance to explore these issues in great detail. In the meantime, GTM Research has some insight to share on just how utility data analytics could start building up over time to realize its due share of returns.

GTM Research’s Soft Grid 2013-2020 report takes a look at four stages of deployments typically undertaken in the course of enterprise analytics deployments. It then applies them to projections pertaining to investments that North American utilities are expected to put into analytics over the remainder of the decade. Here are the results:

As you can see, the utility data analytics ROI potential starts off far below that $10.66-to-$1 average figure cited by Nucleus Research in its 2011 report. Even as investments progress -- and as the returns from increasingly valuable stages of analytics continue to grow -- the overall ROI per year by 2020 reaches only an estimated $7 for every dollar invested, according to GTM Research’s analysis.

These figures don’t allow for wide variation in potential outcomes on a case-by-case basis. But they do contain some sound predictions about the challenges that utilities face, compared to other industries.

These challenges were laid out during a Wednesday presentation of Oracle’s latest utility analytics products, as part of its OpenWorld conference in San Francisco. Bill Devereaux, vice president of industry strategies for Oracle Utilities, cited Nucleus Research’s $10.66-to-$1 figure during his introduction -- and then contrasted it to some less-rosy findings from a series of Oracle surveys.

Those surveys found that in 2013, only 17 percent of North American utility execs said they’re completely prepared for the influx of big data coming at them -- better than the 9 percent figure from 2012, but still a long way to go.

While that’s not a good showing, it’s in keeping with the fact that “analytics at utilities have faced several key challenges,” he noted. Those include the traditionally siloed nature of utility systems and organizations, particularly the disconnect between grid operations and business operations. But it also includes the heavy regulations that utilities work under, their duty to serve all customers equally, and their focus on safety and reliability, rather than profitability, as top goals.

Beyond that, utilities face another key limitation compared to industries ranging from high tech to consumer products, Marcus Torchia, research manager of smart grid strategies for IDC Energy Insights, noted after Wednesday’s Oracle event. That’s the fact that they’re not really able to grow their customer base, or drive increased sales of their product -- kilowatt-hours of electricity -- through their analytics efforts.

Instead, utilities will be expected to realize the lion’s share of their data analytics investment returns from cost reductions, improved efficiencies, and management of emerging business challenges, ranging from environmental and greenhouse gas reduction mandates to the growth of customers generating their own power from rooftop solar panels.

Those are all worthy and necessary goals, to be sure. But they also serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t expect utilities to emulate the high tech or finance industries in terms of turning big data into outsized returns.

For insight into topics like these and more, sign up for Greentech Media's Soft Grid 2013 conference, which returns for its second year October 1-2 in San Francisco. Get a taste of what’s to come, as well as the latest updates on market trends and forecasts, with this free GTM Research soft grid market update.