New technology means companies are doing things ‘because they can’. But Peter Davies says utilities should look to offer customers technology that adds real value.


Peter Davies

Here’s a question for you: did you know the smart home means that, pretty soon, your fridge will be able to order milk when you run out? Here’s a follow-up question: do you care? Do your customers?

Many connected home devices at the moment are just gadgets (connected water purifier, anyone?), built “because we can”. That’s not enough.

Let me ask you instead: would you care if you could be notified that your elderly relative didn’t put the kettle on in the morning as she does every day? Your customers would. They’d also care if you could tell them, ahead of time, that their fridge is about to break down, or help them get money off their home insurance through smart data sharing with insurers. The connected home needs to move from “because we can” to “because we care”. And utilities should to be the ones to make it happen.

Straight to the source

The key is data – energy data to be specific. Smart meters have increased the amount of it available to users and utilities exponentially, opening up many new use cases. However, to get to a home that’s really connected, really smart, we need another leap forward again.

Granularity is the key. Data every 15 minutes is good. Every few seconds is great. Microseconds are the Holy Grail, though. That’s when you can do new things, rather than the same things quicker.

This is because every electrical device has a unique electrical signature. If sampled at seconds or minutes, all of those signatures will be lumped together. Just noise. But when you get down to microseconds they are distinct. So much so that, even with multiple devices switched on at the same time, it’s possible to disaggregate the energy data for each and identify them by their pattern using advanced machine learning.

This means the consumer can tell the toaster from the fridge; the TV from the kettle; the washing machine from the dryer and know exactly when each one is on.

At this level, energy data isn’t even about energy anymore. Sure, customers can save money more effectively by seeing, in real time, their biggest energy-draining appliances. But that’s a limited benefit. This data transcends the energy conversation.

Think of safety and security. If an elderly person fails to switch on the kettle for their morning cuppa, relatives could be alerted to check whether something’s wrong. Or, when they’re on holiday or out at work and the house is meant to be empty, you could let them know if the lights are turned on.

This type of data can even tell when appliances are becoming inefficient or are about to break – letting your customers make informed decisions about replacements and avoid coming home to a freezer full of spoiled food and water damage. It could even work out which replacements are likely to give you the best return on investment based on usage habits.

Third parties can derive added value too. Manufacturers would certainly want to get in-field data for their appliances’ performance. They might even pay the consumer to access it. Similarly, appliance usage behaviour could be used to validate insurance claims or product warranties, or even to more accurately and competitively price home insurance policies.

That’s a smart home, all enabled by energy data while having very little to do with an electric bill. It’s a smart home that cares for its inhabitants. Wouldn’t you want that? Wouldn’t your customer?

This data allows utilities to take their service offering beyond energy supplier to the company that looks after you and your home. The company that saves consumers money on their energy, appliances, insurance and more. The company that keeps your family and your home safe. That’s an enviable market position to hold.

More accurate and granular data can put an end to estimated and surprise bills, reducing customer complaints and improving retention. It can also be used to build and sell proprietary and third party services, opening new revenue streams.

And utilities are ideally placed to take advantage. They already have a head start, having made similar moves for gas with systems like Nest and Hive. Many are already on the lookout for ways to expand their offerings, with SSE, for example, having recently dipped a toe in telecoms.

And that’s another reason utilities need to move on the connected home now – other industries are looking to expand their offerings too. Telecoms companies could also feasibly try to corner the connected home market, and tech giants such as Apple, Google or Amazon would certainly have the clout to make a go of it (Google already has Nest). A lot of competitors may race to the connected home prize.

“Because we can” is no justification for introducing new technology into the home. Not beyond the gadget-geek crowd anyway. To make the smart home a reality, and to make it something people actually want, we have to make technology that works because we care.

That’s the challenge – and golden opportunity – for energy utilities today.