Can utilities take advantage of the IT revolution?

Can utilities take advantage of the IT revolution?

Lightbulb and ethernet cables via tr3gin/Shutterstock

Software giant Oracle sees great technology opportunities for utilities, if they can release their cautious nature and embrace change. It's not too late for utilities to jump on the IT bandwagon, said officials from Oracle, which provides software and hardware to utilities, at an Edison Electric Institute Conference earlier in June.

Water, gas and electric providers are snapping up smart grids at a breakneck pace, yet failing to take advantage of other technologies that could save them money and reduce environmental impacts, said Linda Jackman, a VP of industry strategy at Oracle Utilities, at the San Francisco event.

"We're in the middle of a massive smart meter rollout which is generating so much data; utilities are still looking at what they can do with that data," she said. "It's clearly revolutionized the way they do business and now it's time to take the next step."

Utilities can go beyond smart meters and grids and embrace digital services that eliminate paper, along with GPS devices for workers in the field, Jackman and others said. They also must capture social media opportunities, which means treating Facebook and Twitter as tools rather than forced chores.

Another challenge for this sector is the cautious way it adopts any changes, particularly technology. "The industry moves at a slow and deliberate pace," she said, including with social media. "Some of them do use social media but others worry about getting approval from their counsel, or the companies are restricted by union issues."

But huge opportunities await the utility companies, including in storage, mobile technology, billing systems and the use of problem-solving technicians.

"There are going to be storage innovations," she said. "This may be the next big thing behind smart meters. But in these other areas, billing, mobile technology, things that are already available, utilities will dramatically improve operations as well as customer service."

Many utilities still work with old-school methods -- such as with paper work orders, trucks with no mapping systems and grids that aren't used to potential. However, not all utility companies are behind the curve, Jackman said.

"Georgia Power does a great job. They don't stick to communicating just about outages. I think a lot of them make the mistake of only communicating during the bad times. Memphis Gas and Water does a really good job. They communicate well and they get into the social fabric of the (Memphis) area.”

Jackman called the San Jose Water Company "very efficent. They make good use of IT. When (utility) companies get it, they go forward in a big way."

It's not just productivity tools that need an upgrade in the utility world; aging infrastructure is another big hurdle.

"Utilities need to make some committment to infastructure technology," said Guerry Waters, a VP of marketing at Oracle Utilities. "Some of them are still operating on '70s, '80s, '90s technology."

Lightbulb image via tr3gin/Shutterstock.