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From Customer to Control Room
Basem Sarandah
Founder & CEO-Nexant
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
Utilities globally face new challenges far more complex than just traditional operations. Major shifts in consumption, technology, regulation and customer expectations are underway. Today's electricity customers are far more attuned to how energy is generated, distributed and used, and they increasingly demand that utilities address climate and sustainability issues. Utilities must balance these growing stakeholder concerns-and an emerging relationship between customers and distribution-with priorities around investor returns, new business models, increasing regulatory pressure, and the integration of renewables and storage as well as the ongoing need for a reliable and secure power supply.

The New Utility Challenges
Traditionally, utilities have primarily focused on keeping the lights on rather than customer engagement. However, the customer has moved to a role of greater importance across utility operations with the arrival of these new challenges in a rapidly evolving energy marketplace:
- "Awakening" customers and stakeholders: As customers demand better engagement across operations, utilities must adopt a customer-centric model to meet the high standards required of today's consumer-facing businesses.
- Regulatory, sustainability and climate concerns: Regulatory pressure continues to mount around climate issues while customers concerned about the environmental impacts of energy production seek cleaner energy sources.
- New interrelationships across the grid: Distributed Energy Resources (DER) and new grid edge technologies are fundamentally transforming how energy is generated, distributed and used.
- Design and use of enabling technologies: Utilities seek improved software systems to break down internal silos and develop comprehensive insights that boost efficiency, sharpen decision-making and improve engagement with customers and stakeholders.

From Customer to Control Room
Moving forward, customers are the centerpiece of all utility operations. With increased competition from other energy providers, solar companies and grid edge technologies, utilities must adopt a customer-centric model and begin treating customers as other consumer-facing businesses do to maintain and grow business. To achieve this level of relationship engagement, customer interactions with a utility must be seamless and thoughtful. With this new model, utilities must embrace customers and seek ways to operationalize the customer relationship.

Operationalizing the utility customer relationship requires experts and software that can capture and analyze a portfolio of Demand Side Management (DSM) programs, including renewable programs,also known as energy conservation or Energy Efficiency (EE). These program data points allow a utility to target and engage customers in ways that help drive widespread program acceptance and participation. Working with experts and software can deliver meaningful customer insights based on real-time data to the utility control room, which can be used to further engage customers, improve grid operations, enhance experience and boost satisfaction.

A New Relationship between Customers and Distribution
In the past several years, utilities have deployed a myriad of smart grid technologies designed to improve reliability and reduce outages. Historically, a distribution company would typically only deploy available smart technologies to achieve universal service improvements at a lowest cost possible or in small pilot programs. However, as we continue down the path of the 'Internet of Things' (IoT) and beyond-utilities are increasingly able to capitalize on low cost communications and smart equipment with expanded IoT capabilities. These smart sensors and communications networks provide new opportunities to gather critical asset information about a distribution network and its relationship to customers that will help a utlity reduce outages, improve reliability and deliver on the promise of a smart grid. As infrastructure and equipment with IoT functionality is increasingly deployed, customers will have engagement with a distribution network and Distributed Energy Resources (DER) like never before. As our distributed energy future comes more clearly into view, utilities need to plan for a network that can handle solar photovoltaics/net metering, Electric Vehicle (EV) charging, storage and fuel cells.

Utilities have a responsibility to help customers feel better about our collective energy future. As more is learned about customers through software and smart technologies, the insights gained will help utilities improve planning and operations, manage regulatory and market requirements, leverage clean energy resources, and better deploy and manage new assets. With this knowledge, utilities can optimize performance, improve overall satisfaction and include its customers in building a more sustainable energy tomorrow together-cleaner, safer and more efficient.
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