A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of speaking at Esri’s GeoConX in Chicago. This article expands on the perspectives I shared at GeoConX regarding how the convergence among so many transformational technologies—energy analytics, IoT, AI, AR/VR and GIS to name a few—will enable a future where data becomes our currency. Also, check out this recent Zpryme on the Grid podcast we did on the topic: Data as Commodity. Special thanks to Christine Richards, Erin Hardick, and Erin Autin from Zpryme for their hard work in developing much of the research cited in this article.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple recently said: “Coding is the language of the future.”

What was most profound about this quote is not so much what he said. But where he said it. He said this in the announcement of a new program with Austin Community College. The 6th largest community college in the U.S. The program is designed to take college students with zero programming experience and enable them to build fully-functional apps.

Apple is basically saying that they want to build a future where coding is as common as email or text messaging. The amount and value of data are going to exponentially increase in a world where seventy to eighty percent of the population knows how to code. Bitcoin and block-chain technology are only a precursor to a future where the need to exchange currency as we know it today becomes almost obsolete.

So, what does all this mean for utilities?

As mega trends such as IoT, cloud, distributed energy resources (DERs), and grid analytics converge within the energy sector, massive amounts of new data streams will be created. These data streams will interconnect with consumers, vehicles, transportation systems, and social media data. These new data streams will further open up new applications for developers seeking to leverage the data for outage prediction, safety training, VR/AR, and consumer-facing apps. At the same time, as data becomes more valuable for good it will also become more valuable for bad—the sophistication and number of hackers seeking to attack the U.S. electric grid will surely increase as well (see graphic below). Let’s consider a couple of technology examples where the value of data is changing: spatial information and AR/VR.

Image credit: Zpryme mega trends graphic (2017).

Data—and GIS: The Hurricane Harvey Example

Spatial data and GIS are key enabling platforms that will only increase in importance as more data starts flowing into the energy infrastructure, cities, vehicles and consumers.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Texas two weeks ago the changing the value of spatial data was on full display by a platform created by 20 year-olds. Snapchat was capturing better and more footage than CNN and the Weather Channel—in real-time. The coolest part is that you could pick and choose where you wanted to see footage from.

Looking forward, we envision a new platform to cover real-time events using social media and spatial data. From a data perspective, this means more streams of data that can be incorporated into emerging sharing platforms such as Snapchat and Facebookan provide micro-targeted content or ads to niche audiences.

Image credit: Mashable.

Data—and Virtual/Augmented Reality

From mobile workforce optimization to increased safety, training, better outage prediction, and tracking DER assets—as we turn to what is next, one thing is clear: VR and AR will be a part of the evolution of the power sector.

Two years ago, we wanted to assess how much the utility industry was seriously considering next-gen technologies such as drones, AI, and AR/VR. The report was called: Future Grid vs. Futuristic Grid.

Our research showed that about half of utility executives said AI was a very practical technology and one-third said AR/VR would have very practical applications to the grid. The findings further indicated that data would be coming onto the grid from more non-traditional nodes.

In an upcoming study (to be released in late 2017), we find that a larger impact of AR in the utility industry will be felt within the next three to five years. In fact, gas utilities see a greater potential for AR in mobile workforce management than electric utilities.

AR and VR applications will create new data models that merge both physical and digital attributes that tie together human motion/behavior with digital capture of an action or task being performed. If we take a heart surgery example, where VR data is used to model or predict human error in a function before it happens, then the data from such an application creates value by preventing a surgery error from occurring.

The Opportunities and Challenges of Getting to Data as Our Currency

Although data will open up new opportunities for electricity providers, the energy industry still has much work to do before data becomes a true enabling platform where grid operators, app developers, and consumers can create applications from the various networks of information flowing through the system. Let’s take a closer look at the opportunities and challenges of building data as a currency, and much of it still comes down to actually deploying the technologies that will enable the platform for data exchange.

Our research shows that large-scale grid modernization deployments in the United States are taking place at about 20% of utilities. Investor-owned utilities (IOUs) are slightly outpacing their municipal and cooperative peers.

Source: Zpryme Utility Innovation Series (2016)

The majority of these grid modernization technologies focus on AMI, meter data management, advanced GIS, OMS, data analytics, demand response, systems integration, and customer engagement tools.

We also find that IOUs are significantly more concerned with regulatory approval and cyber security. IOUs have more large-scale deployments and they serve about 70% of electric customers in the United States. Therefore, the scrutiny from regulators will continue to be high when it comes to cyber security as more consumer data is being pushed through their systems.

Source: Zpryme Utility Innovation Series (2016)

Source: Zpryme Utility Innovation Series (2016)

A Closer Look: The Challenges and Opportunities of New Technologies

Not only do utilities face challenges overall with grid modernization efforts, but they encounter challenges and opportunities unique to each type of technology they deploy. For example, as we drill down into the benefits and challenges of DERs for utilities, we see that customer choice is the top benefit of DERs while budget limitations, regulations, and technology maturity are the major roadblocks for advancing DERs.

Source: Zpryme/Siemens Utility Study on DERs (January 2017)

When we studied advanced analytics for outage prediction we found reducing outage time to be the top benefit while the top challenges were identified as budget limitations, model accuracy, and justifying the ROI.

Source: Zpryme/IBM Utility Study on Utility Outage Prediction (July 2017)

In our study of how IoT and Smart Cities will impact utility mobile workforces, improved operational efficiency was identified as the top benefit while network security and privacy were noted as the top challenges.

Source: Zpryme/Panasonic/Verizon Study on Mobile Workforce (January 2017)

Democratizing and Valuing Data

With each of these technologies, we must find a way to grow the benefits and diminish the challenges to truly build a world where data can be democratized to unleash its true value. To do this, we need at least a few things to happen in the energy industry:

  • The industry needs to continue to push capital into innovation, R&D, and emerging startups.
  • Interoperability needs to advance rapidly. Not only for the industry, but also across infrastructure. So, consumer and device data can be shared seamlessly across platforms.
  • Talent must be trained and developed at all levels so the workforce can yield the most value from the data being pushed through these systems.
  • New partners need to be welcomed to the table so we can learn innovative ways to address industry issues.
  • Consumers must continue to feel empowered and encouraged to better understand and share their energy data. Today, 20% of consumers monitor their energy usage on a smartphone. It is only a matter of time before these consumers will start to demand more services and capabilities from the energy providers.

The significant amounts of data that will be flowing through our energy systems over the next few years are going to create new value streams—some of which we can’t even begin to understand yet.

As we contemplate a future where data is our currency, it’s not too far-fetched to think of time when a company such as Apple or Snapchat will see more value in the data being produced by the electric companies, even more so than the value of the electrons produced by them.