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Resourcefulness Survey Shows Disconnect Between Utilities and Customers

Words by RP Siegel

Itron Incorporated, a global company that provides metering equipment, software and solutions to the electric power, natural gas and water utility industries, just released the results of a customer survey in a report that they call The Resourceful Index.

Why resourcefulness? Sharelynn Moore, Itron's vice president of corporate marketing and public affairs, speaks of resourcefulness in terms of "the ability to run more efficiently with solutions that empower both utilities and consumers."

In other words, it's about the utilization of technological resources in the pursuit of more efficient utilization of natural resources in the face of increasing demand. Why does this matter? According to Moore, "We believe that the way that the world manages energy and water is going to define the next century."

That being said, they went out and surveyed some 600 utility executives around the world, along with 800 "knowledgeable customers." According to Itron CEO Phillip Mezey, who I spoke with last week, "The survey was a chance for us to find out what our customers unmet needs and concerns are, as well as their priorities."

Disconnect and consensus

The report shows not only the perceptions and concerns among the two groups, but also some of the disconnects between the two. For example, while the customers put a high emphasis on their desire to receive more information from the utilities (eight out of 10 said they wanted more), many utility executives expressed a willingness to cut back on educational programs, above any other category, in light of budgetary challenges.

Also surprising was the degree of accord in some areas. For example, 94 percent of all utility executives agreed that transformation is required in the industry if they are going to be able to substantially improve efficiency.

This, according to Mezey was "surprising to see in what is generally considered a conservative industry... that message is coming through more strongly than it has in the past."

As the report says, "In a resource hungry world, it is imperative that utilities, cities and consumers get timely information about how electricity, water and gas are used, when and where leaks or power outrages occur, and how distribution systems are functioning in a detailed and consistent way." The absence of that data can lead to "an information disconnect between consumers and their service providers, exacerbated by uncertainty about how government policy mandates for cleaner, greener energy or requirements for water metering and rate recovery will develop at a time of resource constraints."

Says Mezey, "Our premise is simple: You can't manage what you don't measure. It's remarkable what is not measured out there; it's remarkable that consumers (industrial, commercial, residential) don't know when and how they are using their electricity, gas and water. There are tremendous efficiency opportunities out there."

There is a significant perception gap relative to the actual efficiency of utilities. Consumers are demanding improvements. A full 70 percent of them feel that utilities are inefficient, while only 60 percent of utility executives think so. One thing that is clear is the need for stakeholder dialogue to be able to move forward most effectively with all major concerns being addressed.

This reinforces the messages that Lena Hansen of RMI's eLab shared with me last year.

Another big area of concern, particularly among executives was the uncertainty of the regulatory environment, which most agree has delayed investment.

Public utilities and Big Data

The other key area explored by the survey was that of Big Data and analytics. In an area where we often find ourselves talking about scarcity, there is suddenly this vast abundance of data. Most utilities are not yet taking advantage of it. While a full 60 percent of consumers feel that Big Data will improve efficiency, only 20 percent of executives feel prepared to use it today.

There is, however, according to Mezey, "a growing appetite to increase that insight."

Of course as Marshall McLuhan pointed out years ago, much of the data we are analyzing is looking backwards, in the rear view mirror, so to speak, but advanced analytical tools are increasingly being used to help predict where we are going.

Perhaps the biggest finding of the survey, amidst broadening awareness of resource issues, is the need for collaboration and engagement by all stakeholders -- through groups like the Smart Cities Council, eLab or the Gridwise Alliance, which recently issued a report ranking the various states relative to their progress in grid modernization. These discussions will facilitate actions like moving to open standards and increased collaboration. The various constituencies need to work together to answer questions like: How are we going to use technology to increase the level of connectedness, and what we are going to do with that level of connection? We know it can improve efficiency and provide better information to regulators.

Asked how the survey has influenced Itron's direction, Mezey said, "It energizes our efforts to show the benefits of investments that have been made, and to guide future investment, both in the industry as a whole and within our own company. It has underscored the need for better communication among stakeholders, which has motivated our participation in activities like Envision Charlotte, and we will bring these findings to those types of discussions aimed at moving forward with Smart Cities initiatives.

"Our response will include some new tools and technologies, but also it will be the facilitation of more conversations. The fact is, this is far bigger than just us. We have a very active partner network we participate in and it's going to take all of that. So not only do we have investments to make internally, but we need to redouble our efforts to work with the constituency, to solve this much larger problem. We hope to use this report as a tool to step up the dialog about this imperative for transformation."

Image credit: Itron report

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.

RP Siegel headshotRP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, Grist, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering,  Design News, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, Environmental Science, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Eniday, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 53 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP was the winner of the 2015 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week blogging competition. Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com


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