Data management services - an essential resource for utility business

Many utilities are attempting to retain or grow market share by fostering closer links with their customers. In Europe, this is often complicated by the fact that many utilities trade across several countries – each with its own language, trading conditions and market needs.

Finely filtered data and data management hold the key to success. Automated remote meter reading systems allow utilities to acquire consumption and demand data on a frequent or on-demand basis – and by processing data in-telligently, utilities can build up customer profiles that remain true over time.

The value of these profiles is almost inestimable. Today’s utilities are in a position to build unprecedented B2B and B2C demographic profiles – the very motor of contemporary marketing. A more significant competitive advantage comes from making the data available over the Internet. But, because many utilities – especially those trading across country borders – lack the necessary infrastructure to acquire, process and disseminate profile data, there is a growing need for third-party data management services (DMS).

AMR BECOMING ESSENTIAL

Utilities with a large commercial or industrial customer base are aware that the ability to gather meter data quickly, accurately, efficiently and safely is vital to revenue collection and cash flow. Market deregulation increases the pressure by raising customer expectations; the fact that industry regulators often make collecting metering data at 5, 15 or 30 minutes intervals a mandatory operating requirement compounds the problem. Similar pressures are experienced by utilities serving the residential sector, where the traditional practices of annual or biannual meter reading and estimated bills no longer represent a satisfactory level of service.

Automated collection of meter data, backed by the ability to process, validate and disseminate the information, provides the cornerstone of a data management strategy. The data from suitable AMR-equipped meters and data loggers can be obtained on demand (pulled) or by polling at regular intervals, using a variety of communication technologies. It is often more cost-effective, for example, to use PLC techniques to bring data from widely dispersed meters to some form of data concentrator, and then to transfer it to a local data collection point via a dedicated fixed wireless or telephone link.

Fig 1: Schematic showing typical data flow, from meter to end user

Acquisition and processing are vital functions of any data management solution. But storing large quantities of historical data so that it can be accessed easily can prove complicated and costly. Issues of hardware redundancy, back-up policies, data security and integrity must all be addressed, and consideration must be given to the exacting environmental conditions required by long-term storage. Comprehensive data back-up and recovery strategies – which are mandatory in some of the deregulated markets of the world – are expensive to set up and maintain. A large data management centre provides the opportunity for significant economies of scale, making outsourcing of the data storage function a cost-effective option.

COMPLEX INTEGRATION TASKS

Bringing the various elements of a data management solution together calls for system integration and project management skills. Existing data management systems are often based on proprietary rather than open architectures, which means that considerable effort is needed to modify them to meet the demands of the deregulated market. This requires specialist knowledge of the entire data flow chain, from meter right through to payment (see Figure 1). But picture the scenario in Europe, where each country is at a different stage in the deregulation process and each has its own set of regulatory requirements and trading conditions. For utilities wishing to trade across national and international boundaries, the scale of the infrastructure problem is daunting. Not surprisingly, most are looking to outsource their data management requirements, seeking specialist companies that can supply and operate the entire service on their behalf.

Schematic of the Schlumberger data collection network

There are a number of third-party data management service providers in Europe, but Schlumberger is the only company that offers a pan-European scale of service. It has already established local data collection facilities in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK, and intends adding more as needed. Each of these facilities is responsible for collecting metering data from utilities’ customers in that country, at a frequency determined by the specific contract, and forwarding it to the new data management and web services centre in Karlsruhe.

Each facility is staffed by local personnel, which gives utilities a competitive advantage by providing customers with a local presence. After acquisition the data is checked for errors and omissions – with any meters being re-polled if necessary – and then transmitted to Karlsruhe via the secure private Schlumberger information network (SiNET).

A screen shot showing typical web presentation of data

VITAL KNOWLEDGE BASE

The most powerful resource a utility has at its disposal is information about its customer base and its customers’ energy usage. Properly processed, this infor-mation can yield a wealth of competitive advantages, ranging from the adoption of more efficient billing processes through to improving customer relations and introducing additional value-added services. All of these contribute to increased customer loyalty – the most important consideration for every utility operating in a deregulated environment.

The European market for DMS is poised for significant growth, and Schlumberger wanted to position itself as leader. By introducing a new data management and web services centre on-line in Europe, the company believes it is now in a position to help utilities adapt to the fast-changing market conditions in the area.

A CENTRE OF EXCELLENCE

The Schlumberger data management centre in Karlsruhe forms the hub of a pan-European data network (see Figure 2). The centre’s main system is built on a three-tier architecture, comprising the communication servers, the database server and the web server. The web server handles requests to the database server and prepares pages for sending to the client’s web browser. Page preparation is based on Microsoft Active Server page technology and Visual Basic scripts, and the pages contain Java scripts and Java applets which are sent as compressed Jar files to handle local processing and presentation on the client’s web browser.

Network traffic is optimised for maximum transmission speed and inter-activity. When the processing involves a large data set, such as a yearly grid aggregation, the processing is performed by the database server via PLS/SQL procedures, and only the result is sent via the network. However, when a high degree of interactivity is required, such as a load profile analysis, the data is sent to the client in a compact form, to be processed and analysed on his premises.

Data is acquired by the data collection facilities in each country, using different AMR packages and communications protocols specific to the local metering environment. In order to strengthen the DMS team, Schlumberger has recruited IT personnel from Omnes and its Oilfield Services division, who now work with the metering experts on issues such as network security, IP communication and complex data modelling. They are currently developing Virtual Private Network solutions that allow real-time monitoring and web publishing of energy data using the existing Schlumberger Intranet infrastructure, thus minimising communication costs.

Processed data from the centre in Karlsruhe is uploaded to a secure web server to make it available to utilities. Access is restricted to authorised users by a variety of security features, which include the use of secure socket layer technology, involving digital signatures and smart card-based private key encryption. Confidentiality is critical to this type of service offering, so Schlumberger employs particularly rigorous procedures to ensure that information is only made available to specific people, and can never be replicated, re-routed or presented to any unauthorised party.

The web server makes extensive use of the latest presentational software, including Java applets, to provide authorised users with fully interactive web pages (see Figure 3). Users can consequently manipulate data easily – with full scroll and zoom facilities – and can perform tasks such as day-to-day or week-to-week comparisons of energy supply and consumption without having to re-access the data.