The market for utility IT systems is large and growing. Navigant Research estimates that nearly $9.5 billion will be spent globally this year on everything from meter data management (MDM) and customer information systems (CISs) to advanced distribution management systems (ADMSs), outage management systems (OMSs), and new analytics solutions. (Our forthcoming report, Smart Grid IT Systems, will cover these technologies in detail.)
Mobility is a key part of this expansion. Utilities today want their workers to have access to systems data wherever they are. While this has long been true for mobile workforce management systems (MWMSs), mobility requirements are now extending to a multitude of systems.
As IT systems are increasingly integrated with each other and MWMSs, field crews can not only communicate instantly with their peers over mobile devices, but also upload critical, accurate data to central office systems from the field. Photos can be taken and uploaded in real-time, providing global positioning system (GPS) coordinates of a given grid device as well as visual information and nameplate data. Asset management systems (AMSs) and geographic information systems (GISs) have never before had the benefit of such accurate and granular data.
In Real Time
Safety measures can also be enforced by mobile systems. IBM and Apple have announced an iPhone solution that (among other things) can require a worker to view safety guidelines before performing certain tasks. The app can also ensure that the worker has appropriate, up-to-date certifications before beginning the job. It can find subject matter experts or managers in the geographic vicinity if the onsite crew doesn’t have the needed expertise.
On the customer side of the equation, utilities are recognizing the need for greater, more frequent engagement. Mobile applications tied in with MDM systems and CISs allow customers to easily check their mobile device for information on usage and bills or to participate in demand response events, giving them more visibility and control over their energy use.
Utilities are also adding social media accounts and using them to interact with consumers—a field worker can post to Facebook, for example, to advise customers when an outage is expected to be over—and keep posts up-to-date in real time readily from the field. The connected employee and real-time system access are revolutionary advances in utility IT; the possibilities for utilities to gain real worker and ratepayer efficiencies are endless.
Mobility at a Price
These new possibilities don’t come cheap, though. In addition to mobile device and communications costs, the integration expenses for utilities that upgrade one or several systems in order to achieve these benefits can be high. In a highly competitive market, the prices for utility software solutions generally are holding steady, even as functionality grows. But the number of system interfaces and the complexity of integration are increasing, as well. Although smaller utilities may be challenged to make these upgrades, in the long run, mobile access will be as common a tool for utility workers—including those in the office—as it is today for many other industries. This mobility is a key aspect in enabling the energy cloud, which promises to connect stakeholders in each link of the energy value chain.