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Posted on August 14, 2012

PG&E’s Austin Kicks Off Conference on Dealing with Smart Grid Data

By David Kligman

SAN FRANCISCO—PG&E has installed 9 million SmartMeters from the Oregon border to Bakersfield, and that technology already has led to innovative uses of information and the ability to pinpoint real-time outages to help the utility more quickly restore power to customers.

But the new technology also means an influx of data. Those SmartMeters produce more than 100 billion reads every year. Each month, about three terabytes of interval meter data is added to PG&E’s system, a number that will continue to increase as gas and electric grids are equipped with even more innovations.

PG&E customer Tom Lyons joined Karen Austin, the utility’s chief information officer, and app developer John Hwang at today’s Soft Grid conference, sponsored by Greentech Media. (Photo by David Kligman.)

“Big data is a big deal,” Karen Austin, PG&E’s chief information officer, said today (Aug. 14) during the keynote speech at the first Soft Grid Conference, held at PG&E’s auditorium and sponsored by Greentech Media.

The two-day conference, attended by representatives from utilities, business partners and smart grid professionals, was a gathering to discuss the challenge of collecting and effectively analyzing the massive amount of data from smart grid hardware.

“These data sources are no longer simple Excel files on your laptop,” Austin said.

She said utilities like PG&E need to partner with smart grid experts on better hardware planning and the ability to minimize processing power needed to find the data.

“We really need your help,” Austin said. “As we develop better tools to analyze and model and correlate the related data, we’re going to have unprecedented insight into how the grid is operating.”

David Leeds, a smart grid analyst with GTM Research, said the age of big data has already arrived with global data doubling every two years. The utility industry isn’t the only one facing this issue (Wal-Mart has 1 million customer transactions a day), but utilities have been slower to respond to the data deluge, he said.

Ultimately, utilities need to remember the huge benefits the smart grid provides, Austin said. For PG&E, it’s the ability to provide safe, reliable and affordable power.

She pointed to two important successes that take advantage of this new technology:

  • SmartMeters, “an incredibly complex data-drive ecosystem” that helps with billing, tariffs and rate plans. PG&E also is using the data from SmartMeters to more quickly identify outages, replacing older, less advanced monitoring systems. The data also allows the utility to replaced overworked transformers before they break down.
  • The Green Button, PG&E’s pioneering project with utilities nationwide to allow customers to access their personal energy usage with the click of a green button. The technology paved the way for third-party developers to create apps that find innovative uses for energy information.

After the presentation, Austin invited two special guests to discuss their experiences. One was Tom Lyons, recently featured in a Currents video, who described how he and his family have managed to reduce their electric use by 17 percent thanks to personalized information provided on PG&E’s website.

Austin also asked John Hwang, a Silicon Valley software developer, to speak about his app, which calculates the electricity charge and savings for charging their electric vehicles at home. Hwang currently is working with PG&E to launch the app later this year.

To make the app truly effective, app developers need access to more data, he said.

“The typical utility customer is not going to download a file and analyze it and crunch the numbers themselves,” he said. “They need third party developers like us to help us analyze that data.

“We hope that other utility companies follow PG&E’s example of making this information available to their customers.”

Hwang shared how his purchase of an all-electric Chevrolet Volt earlier this year led to his developing the app. Purchasing the car also made him more diligent about saving energy at home. In fact, in the three months after he bought the car, his electric bill reduced an average 20 percent.

“I never thought I would look forward to getting a monthly bill,” he said. “But I actually look forward to seeing the PG&E bill that comes to my house and seeing how much money and electricity I’m saving.”

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