The energy sector needs to use common premises identifiers if the smart meter rollout is to go smoothly, says Marc Hobell

Before householders and energy company shareholders can reap the benefits of smart metering, there is a fundamental question that needs answering: where are customers’ premises? Simple? Sadly not.

The electricity and gas industries use different meter identifiers to distinguish between customers and there is no link between them. As things stand, the only way of linking the gas and electricity identifiers is by matching associated addresses. But the gas and power industries differ in how they define an address: for electricity it is the meter location, while for gas it is the premise address. And some premises have no postal address. On top of all of that there are issues over address data quality.

It is no surprise, then, to find that these disparities create difficulties when trying to identify premises and match addresses across different systems and organisations. All this has implications for the smart meter implementation programme and subsequent market opportunities.

Clearly, a unique identifier for all premises giving a precise location for metering assets would be very helpful. Such an identifier is available and is currently used by government and private organisations, such as water companies and insurers. Using this unique property reference number (UPRN) would remove the ambiguity inherent in the current meter location arrangements.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) recognises the value of using a UPRN in the smart meter rollout. In a report from its Business Process Design Group it says: “A UPRN provides a reference key to join related address records across different gas and electric [metering] datasets.” Indeed, a spatial reference for every customer premise could be used across energy providers as a single reference linking all household meters and eliminating the need to match multiple datasets – with its attendant risk to commercial confidentiality.

Geographic information, allied to a shared address database, could enable suppliers to streamline planning and smooth the rollout. Geographic information pulls together disparate sources of data, including social and economic indicators, to reveal trends and patterns. This is paramount for the smart meter rollout and any effort to co-ordinate the management and sustainability of critical national infrastructure.

To achieve any of this requires energy suppliers to collaborate, and it is important that the rollout runs smoothly because the energy industry’s reputation could hang on consumers’ experience during it. Errors and costs will be scrutinised for any shortfalls by politicians, media, and ultimately, consumers. According to one industry director: “If we don’t focus on establishing the platform during foundation, we risk turning customers against smart metering – hence failing to reap the benefits and opportunities for radical transformation and innovation in the later stages.”

A glitch-free rollout will be a challenge. It will place unprecedented demands on back office and field staff. For example, meter installation rates will outstrip any previous pace by a factor of three or more. A smooth operation will rein in costs and keep consumers on side. So gas and electricity suppliers will have to give consistently reliable notification to consumers about when installers will be arriving, and they will have to ensure installation creates as little disruption as possible – for example, by upping the instances when gas and electricity meters are installed on the same day. Geographic information data can help inform suppliers’ choices of priorities for the rollout by providing information on, for instance, customers who live in high-rise flats, fuel poverty clusters, or people who have solar panels installed on their homes.

Much of the immediate focus is on the rollout stage of smart metering. But once smart meters are in every UK home and business, shared geographic information resources could form the basis for powerful analytical capabilities to enable suppliers to get the most out of the newly installed smart technology. They would be in a position to create competitive advantages through analysis of many factors, including socio-economic groupings, lifestyle preferences, regional characteristics and other elements that guide energy efficiency improvements and marketing strategy.

An alliance between energy suppliers is made all the more important by the need for them to interact as one with other organisations, including the Data and Communications Company (DCC) and energy network operators, to ensure customers get the full benefits that smart metering offers. For example, interaction between suppliers and local authorities will be essential to ensure low-income and other vulnerable consumers have full access to the benefits of smart metering. And the programme needs to be supported by a national awareness campaign, which will have to be managed collaboratively.

Further benefits could include improved service with consistently accurate billing and customised communications. Smart meters could bring cost savings through remote reading, and efficiency in managing customer communications including responses to house moves, faults or supplier changes.

The network companies have a significant stake in the outcome of the smart metering programme. Information from smart meters on, for example, clustering of solar panel installations or electric vehicle use could inform network investment decisions. And smart metering is the keystone for smart grids, which arguably will be essential in a low-carbon energy market.

With that in mind, energy regulator Ofgem is putting pressure on distribution networks to focus more on end consumers. Network operators’ role in the smart meter rollout will amplify that pressure. Operators of energy distribution networks are, however, already using shared geographic information extensively to reduce operating expenditure and carbon emissions, while adding to customer satisfaction. It speeds up jobs and cuts the number of journeys by field engineers, improves the co-ordination of streetworks and improves asset management efficiency. There is a clear logic in extending that experience into collaboration with suppliers in the smart rollout.

A common operational platform and single premise identifier would put the energy industry in a far stronger place than it is in now to realise the gains on offer from smart metering. It would add value to energy businesses by creating interoperability across existing databases and departments, and ultimately pan-energy sector adoption of common geographic information datasets could future proof data by preparing suppliers and networks for the onset of smart grids. Smart grids promise still greater opportunities to create new markets, advance energy efficiency and curb carbon emissions. All energy stakeholders share these goals. Shared geographic datasets lead the way to them.

Marc Hobell, Ordnance Survey’s head of public sector, energy and infrastructure

This article first appeared in Utility Week’s print edition of 19th April March 2013.

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