Deploying new technology can be equal parts exciting and terrifying for a company in any industry. Especially those in utilities that provide essential services like electricity, gas, or potable water. In many cases, the concept of a new solution and the search for a suitable vendor can help bring technology to fruition. It also can be an expensive and very lengthy process. So, what happens if these tech investments fail? What happens if that intended step forward in efficiency or productivity actually results in a giant leap backward?
To combat what could be a boom or bust situation, utilities might take a measured and cautious approach. When instituting pilot programs, small-batch tests give the utility insight into how successful the technology can be. It also can help determine if a wider rollout is in the company’s best interests.
One of the gold standards in utility pilot programming was carried out by Portland General Electric (PGE). The company spent 18 months rolling our 850,000 smart meters, closely analyzing the outcomes of each batch in production before moving on to the next. This limited the up-front spending while allowing the company to carefully track progress. PGE’s phased approach was a great move for a new technology with unproven results. The goal was to lower operational costs and reduce customer rates. This ultimately worked out since PGE had full control at each stage and was able to analyze results and make corrections as needed.
The results of PGE’s transition to smart meters were fantastic; they saved $18.2 million annually, eliminated 1.2 million unnecessary miles of driving, and saved 80,000 gallons of gas. This was possible because of the careful planning and review at each stage of testing and rollout. However, things could have easily gone the other way. If the first batch of smart meters were released and failed to operate as intended, it’s true that PGE engineers would have a chance to make corrections. In the grand scheme of things, that type of bug is a minor hiccup. But extrapolated out across nearly a million meters, the utility would have some big problems.
An example of a wildly successful tech investment pilot program can be found in Dallas, Georgia. The city’s water utility deployed a new smart network. According to coverage in WaterWorld, what started as a small pilot program using technology to reduce non-revenue water grew considerably after city leaders saw what was possible.
The city expanded its rollout of residential water meters but also added commercial meters for support. They dove fully into a smart communications network with real-time monitoring for leaks. That new technology gave them the ability to resolve errors in a matter of hours. Previously, this process may have taken months.
By deploying new technology methodically, the city of Dallas was able to slowly peel the curtain back, revealing both successful integrations and room for improvement. The city’s billing clerk told WaterWorld that through these efforts, Dallas was able to eliminate 12 million gallons of lost water within one year.
Regardless of the type of technology or utility, there are some universal keys to keep in mind. When implementing a pilot program you’ll first want to identify very clearly what you hope to accomplish. These goals should be actionable (think dollars saved like with PGE or the elimination of gallons of lost water as in the case with Dallas’ water utility). Equally as important to the goal is the length of time in which you hope to achieve it. Without an end date for the final review, it’s hard to know if your utility is ready to move on to the next step in a phased rollout.
With each phase of tech investment, you’ll need to select a testing group that represents a subsection of your larger base. And also the protocol needed to complete the pilot. A utility testing group could be a certain neighborhood in the city. Or one step of a process that you hope to improve upon. Once your goals, testing group, and protocols are squared away, it’s time to go live and execute. But the work doesn’t stop there as pilot programs require consistent monitoring and analysis in order to gauge progress.
Through that analysis, you should have a good understanding of whether your pilot program is worthy of continuation or if it makes more sense to go back to the drawing board.
Ensight+ has years of experience creating and deploying unique software solutions for its utility customers. For more information, contact us today.
All monitored by you, in real time. Are you ready to take control?