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Taking the smart technology route to manage loads, boost network resilience and enhance revenue streams also takes the utility further down the tech rabbit hole.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.  

Eskom’s senior advisor Shawn Papi advocates for utilities to deploy smart metering to improve their businesses; however, he emphasises that the most important aspect of smart meter installations should be to become more customer-centric.

The majority of African utilities are either engaged in or planning to adopt smart metering systems for multiple reasons such as improving their revenue collection. This is a worthwhile endeavour but the utility market should not deploy smart metering solutions to target a single problem within their company. “They should rather have a business case that covers all the factors affecting the company because there could be multiple situations that could be addressed with the same system including operating the grid efficiently and engaging customers,” says Papi.

Smart metering systems once installed and operated in large numbers will avail large amounts of energy data. Thus opportunities for improving customer experience will lie in the use of data processing technologies. Two such technologies commonly in use are Non-Intrusive Load Monitoring (NILM) and Chatbots.

The former is defined, in general, as “a signal analysis method to computationally identify end use loads and estimate their consumption without [additional] physical metering” and will enable utilities to acquire high resolution end-use load data without intruding on customer premises but through processing energy data delivered by smart metering systems. Whereas Chatbots consists of software that performs an automated live chat task.

It’s to the utility’s advantage to empower consumers

Through NILM, utilities will, for example, be able to provide customers with itemised bills highlighting individual high consumption loads, thereby empowering the consumers to target specific loads in their efforts to achieve energy savings.

Regarding Chatbots – these are essentially “computer programs that your customer can ‘talk’ to”. Thus the use of Chatbot technology coupled with smart metering data will enable utilities to fully automate customer service. For instance, customers will be able to retrieve their real-time consumption data with a simple WhatsApp message: “what is my current consumption?” or remotely top up their prepaid energy credit by: “top up my electricity with R20”.

Internationally, utility companies EDF Energy in the UK and Exelon in the US are already experimenting with Chatbot technology using platforms such as Facebook Messenger and Amazon Echo. So what? The real benefits here are that Chatbots enable the customers to easily reach the utility through the same social media platforms they are familiar with and, through further development, will enable timeous resolution of customer queries.

Both the NILM and Chatbot technologies make for a good pairing with smart metering in improving customer experience. That being said, the large amounts of data generated will provide a solid basis for a plethora of future customer-orientated technologies. Thus we see that the applications of smart metering data are limitless and depend entirely on the emerging (and evolving) customer needs. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.