Power to the People the Smart-Tech Way

What if every month you got a report on how your electricity use compared to that of your neighbors? And personalized tips on how to save money based on your own usage patterns?

New software is making this possible, says David Moore, senior market development manager at Opower. His company has pioneered cloud-based software that focuses on utility customers. “We are taking data from the utility and converting it into something that is more valuable than simply billing information,” he said.

Data collected by public and private electric utility companies is interpreted to create two-way conversations between utility providers and consumers. The consumer gains a voice — and more control over electricity usage.

It’s no secret that consumers complain about their electricity providers. Traditionally, according to Moore, there has been “a huge expectation gap between customers and the utilities that serve them.” The company, which has utility clients across the United States and internationally, hears the same complaints around the world, in developed and developing countries alike.

People want lower bills, they want accurate bills, and they look to utility companies for energy information. The Opower software creates “an alignment of the customer’s interests with the utility’s interests and with, usually, the government interests — in terms of demand-side management, or emissions reductions or simply giving people information they deserve,” Moore said.

Leapfrogging into the energy future

“If we give people a reason to engage online because there are tools on the utility’s Web portal that are compelling,” Moore said, it gets consumers interested and it saves money.

When consumers engage, they guide the power companies.

Customers, through their usage patterns, tell providers where the grid needs a new substation, or what neighborhood needs an educational campaign on money-saving energy use. With tailored data at their fingertips, providers can send text or email messages when power supplies are stretched at peak demand times.

Opower strives to “smarten” the grid, whether in situations where high-tech electronic meters automatically feed into digital databases or where data from older electromechanical meters is recorded and uploaded manually.

“We allow some of the oldest legacy systems to take the data that they have and really leapfrog into the future about decisionmaking,” Moore said. “Some of the most forward-looking utility executives are in places like India. They may not have smart meters for every customer, but they are using the meters they have to get granular data, and they’re using that data to make smart decisions.”

A transformative model

“Transforming the way utilities interact with their customers based on the data provided by those customers — how they use energy, when they use it, and how they engage with utility communications — gives  a community feel to  what has been, traditionally, a public service,” Moore believes.

Such refinements were not possible a few decades ago. “Data can unlock transformative opportunities that were not available to the utility industry before the computer age,” Moore said.

Today, people tweet utility companies about performance. Moore likens it to a flash mob: Markets recognize that “customers, ordinary people, have a tremendous amount of power because information technology enables them to act as a community with intent that was not possible in a prior era.”