By Karl Wills

The importance and potential of the metering industry is illustrated in its ongoing growth. Utility companies at the forefront of this growth have new found opportunities to influence energy usage through the improved customer service opportunities that comes from smart meter management information. And what could be higher on today’s agenda than reducing energy wastage and learning to live in a more sustainable fashion?

When it comes to customer service, the utilities market still has much to learn when compared to other providers such as telecoms. This is surprising for an industry in which customer retention should largely be based on service differentiation; a customer choosing water, gas or electricity, provided the supply is constant, has little to differentiate between products other than the associated customer service.

For utilities, one key method of providing an enhanced service is through intelligent usage data gathering, management and sharing. Detailed information collected on customers’ energy usage habits can be used to reveal new product opportunities for the supplier. It can also be used to plan ahead for supply; and, when communicated back to customers through the bill, the information will help them to manage their energy consumption more efficiently and, for each supply fitted with a smart meter, help to identify where waste may be occurring.

Improving not only the information available to customers on their energy usage but also the way this information is accessed and delivered, will in time instigate a change in attitudes to energy consumption. Smart meter billing and information technology allows customers to view and understand how much energy is used throughout the home or business, right down to the appliance level. Receiving this dynamic information via the web to a PC or a range of mobile devices provides a more interactive experience than a static bill. It also provides the means necessary to make an informed decision when choosing to invoke utility supply.

With smart meter billing and information systems, consumers can immediately witness the impact on expenditure that even a small change to their behaviour can make. With visible evidence of cost or carbon emission reduction available almost instantaneously, a business or household is much more likely to opt for energy saving measures.

This impact need not be to the detriment of revenue, however. As we all learn to use energy more carefully, and energy becomes a scarcer resource, it is justifiable for energy companies to apply a sliding scale of costs for usage at different times of the day and year and a premium cost for heavy energy users. Furthermore, although oil costs have reduced from their high of a couple of years ago they are on the way up again, hitting a record in July, just in time for energy costs to become a major political issue this winter. Economies of scale do not necessarily apply to a resource which is in considerable demand, yet decreasing in availability.

For businesses already used to monitoring their expenses, data network or supply chain activity from a centralised management system, similarly accessing and comparing information on energy use across different sites from a single location is a natural and beneficial step.

So, with smart meter billing, the information contained in the bill quickly becomes a visible and genuinely useful tool for managing and lowering energy use, which makes traditional utility company estimates and quarterly paper bills seem very antiquated.

From the utility supplier’s perspective, large scale smart meter deployment will help correlate energy and water supply with demand. The increased and more detailed data available on consumption patterns will help in providing deeper analysis for predicting seasonal usage, and cyclical usage patterns. This will provide the data to implement price incentives and pricing packages for consumption at different times of the day or year, and for forecasting revenue and demand.

Any new technology investment involves a measure of risk, and current barriers to widespread adoption of smart meters include the issue of who should fund the installations. But the utility sector would do well to look at the mobile telephony market that was facing the same issue just a few years ago. Ultimately the value-added services that developed alongside the technology to overcome these barriers also helped to the mobile phone market evolve into an innovative high-revenue generating sector, to the extent that telephony is no longer even included as a general utility.

An increase in awareness of energy issues is leading businesses and households to keep a more accurate watch on their usage patterns and request information on what it is. Smart meter billing and information technology presents energy consumption information in a manner that is meaningful to consumers and that is likely to help them manage their energy use more efficiently, and ultimately help in meeting carbon reduction targets. Thus smart meter billing and information is the key opportunity the utility market has to create a genuine value-added and modern convergent utility service supply.