How enterprise-quality data at consumer prices can help electricity system operators sleep at night

Wattwatchers Chairman Justine Jarvinen*, whose full-time role is CEO of the UNSW Energy Institute, was the guest speaker at an Australian Utility Week VIP Breakfast Forum hosted by SAS. Below is a lightly-edited extract from her talk, which was formally titled: ‘The acceleration of digital transformation through data-driven decision making.’

What keeps you up at night? This is a question I’ve been asking my peer group of energy experts recently. Some of their worries make the hair on the back of my neck stand up, and the solutions all come down to data, and data-driven decision making.

We in the energy sector know that we are collectively responsible for the biggest and most complex machine in the country. Whatever role we each play in the energy value chain, from the physical to the financial, there is no getting away from the fact that energy is a ‘system of systems’: interconnecting generation systems, transmission systems, distribution systems, underpinned by financial markets and systems, and overlain by regulatory systems and frameworks.

When it all goes well, other people, outside this room, take energy for granted, invisibly underpinning our economic prosperity, our critical infrastructure like water supplies and communications, and providing mod cons and human dignity. So, when energy doesn’t go well, it’s front page news.

But we in the industry don’t take energy for granted. People in this room are kept up at night worrying about how complex it all is.

Now, more than ever, we need data to enable robust and real-time decision making, because three important and unprecedented things are happening that are keeping my network of energy insiders up at night: firstly, the system ‘buffers’ that we used to rely on are disappearing. Secondly, system timescales are compressing. Thirdly, we are increasingly flying blind.

Flying blind, you ask? There are a lot of people in my expert peer group who are kept awake feeling exactly this. The electricity system is transitioning from HV (high voltage) to LV (low voltage) networks. We don’t have visibility over much of the LV network at the granularity we need (both geography and timescale). We don’t have visibility over inverters and other devices that sit behind the meter; the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) can’t see them; distribution companies can’t see them; retailers can’t see them.

So, when I ask low voltage network operators ‘what keeps you up at night?’, they tell me that this issue of flying blind is a growing problem, with the inability to see what’s been connected to the network, to monitor it, let alone control it.

This issue, and the flip-side opportunity it creates, got my attention when I used to head up the emerging technology function at AGL. We weren’t a network operator, of course, but I could see the stacked value business case for how data and insights could create value across our generation and our retail activities. The business case we made for data investments, through hardware investments, had immediate implications for horizon 1 (including improving our cost of capital and current customer relationships), horizon 2 (such as new products and services for customers) and horizon 3 (new business models and new markets).

In that role I saw hundreds of technologies, and very few were robust enough that I felt we could invest AGL shareholders’ funds in them. One of the investments we made was in startup company Solar Analytics, because we loved the data they had access to, and the insights that could be created. Fast forward a few years, and I’m now delighted to be the Chairman of Wattwatchers: it is Wattwatchers hardware and data that was – and still is – being used by many customer partners, like Solar Analytics, to create insights and value.

So, let me tell you exactly what excited me about Wattwatchers, and the role it is already playing in accelerating the digital transformation and providing robust data for decision-making. Wattwatchers creates what we think are the world’s most flexible solutions for measuring and managing electricity in real-time through the cloud. Through partners like Solar Analytics, we have deployed nearly 30,000 hardware devices – known as ‘Auditors’ – in the field, with commercial rollouts in Australia, NZ and the UK, and most recently Ireland and South Africa.

At my house in NSW, my old spinning disk analogue meter provides four cumulative readings a year, if the meter reader can be bothered to come into my back garden. Usually they can’t be bothered, so I’m billed on the basis of estimated reads unless I contact my Retailer with my own meter reading information.

If I upgrade to a so-called smart meter, I could get 30-minute meter readings, delayed until 6am the next day. But, of course, I have a Wattwatchers auditor installed at my place, which provides more than 106,000 energy-related readings per day. That’s a lot of data. And I don’t have to wait until tomorrow for the data. I can get it right now.


What granularity of data does Wattwatchers collect?


We collect short and long energy data.

  • Short energy: streaming data pushed to the cloud from the devices – typically at intervals of 5 seconds (or we can average those out to provide 30 and 60 second intervals, configurable over the air).
  • Long energy: 5-minute measurements requested by the server from the device and guaranteed delivery by ‘handshake’ (this data is also logged in our devices for up to 25 days, and automatically ‘catches up’ when reconnects with server after a communications service interruption).


What types of data does the Wattwatchers Auditor collect?


The API collects, by default, measurements including:

  • RMS voltage in volts, RMS current in amps, RMS energy in Joules.
  • Real energy, including positive and negative energy, in Joules
  • Reactive energy, including positive and negative, in Joules
  • Frequency in Hertz
  • Reading duration and timestamp

We can handle premises with single-phase or 3-phase power. And we can monitor up to six individual electricity circuits from each Auditor device.

Lots of companies are providing some type of energy data over the internet, but not all data is created equal. As you’ve heard, Wattwatchers data isn’t just consumption data. And it’s not estimated or inferred.

It’s enterprise-quality data, obtained by hardware that’s available at a consumer prices.

There’s often a tricky aspect to all this about how data is communicated, and relying on the fickle WiFi at customers’ premises often will not suffice where enterprise level performance is required. But Wattwatchers is comms agnostic, and can use 2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi and LoRa links. We also have a new Modbus device, allowing integrations with other hardware such as programmable logic controllers and billing meters. So, we don’t just monitor devices, we can now control devices, from home batteries through to commercial HVAC systems.


How is all this data handled?


We have an IoT sensor cloud platform purpose-built to handle the huge volume of data generated by our devices. This IoT platform also enables our partner customers via push/pull/streaming API’s to use our hardware and cloud with any software partner platform.  We’ve proven ourselves over 110 pilots and currently have more than 40 partner API integrations, with companies like Solar Analytics, GreenSync and its deX (Decentralised Energy Exchange), Simble, Envizi, CSIRO spinout Evergen, and Improv, all of which are part of the Wattwatchers partner network ecosystem.


What decision-making is this digital data enabling?


Well, we have partners providing solar solutions, billing and payments platforms, energy management and other energy services, demand response, virtual power plants, and even good old-fashioned electricity retailing.

Our CEO wanted to install a home battery for his solar PV system, but with the data and insights gleaned from his Wattwatchers auditor, his household is now so energy aware and efficient and productive that he couldn’t justify paying for a battery to be installed.

We see lots of potential in the C&I (commercial and industrial) space, and we recently we had a fabulous example of a telecommunications company with a multi-floor data centre: Wattwatchers devices were deployed as part of an energy management initiative and power consumption was slashed > 50%, with ongoing savings of around $25,000 per month.

Other initiatives underway at Wattwatchers include repurposing our devices to be used on the low-voltage network for monitoring pole-mounted transformers and ground-level transformer kiosks (prototypes are now available). 

We are also working on ARENA-backed DER (distributed energy resources) project led by Solar Analytics, with AEMO, to capture and report voltage (and subsequently, we expect, frequency) at sub-second levels from Wattwatchers devices (which already sample at 250 milliseconds).

So, I’m excited about Wattwatchers ability to solve the issue of lack of data, and to empower decision makers across the energy value chain. We can monitor devices attached to the low voltage network, providing data and insights into factors such as line droop, out of phase, voltage fluctuations, frequency issues, and more; and also can control other devices and circuits. (Consumers have a stake in this data too, beyond things like energy saving and rooftop solar optimisation, because poor quality service of electricity from the grid can fry people’s expensive electronics, trigger blackouts, and knock inverters offline due to over voltage costs.)

Wattwatchers can do this for residential consumers, commercial consumers, energy services companies, network companies, retailers, device manufacturers, demand response aggregators, virtual power plant operators … and whereas most inverter data and device data is held in proprietary walled gardens, Wattwatchers creates insights behind meters and behind walled gardens, with the consumer’s permission. We are helping to solve the issue of flying blind.

The Australian Government released a report a couple of years ago that said, of the six levels of industry digitalisation, the Australian utility sector is at the second lowest level; with the only sectors to score lower being agriculture, construction and transport/warehousing.

McKinsey has suggested that if digitally-enabled innovations can be applied across the entire utilities value chain (generation, transmission and distribution, trading and retailing) this could create up to AU $1.3 billion in EBIT improvement. That comes from optimising supply and demand management, maintenance, workforce management, automating processes, digitising customer journeys, and collecting and mining the data unlocked by new technologies such as smart meters.


So, does all this keep me up at night?


Well, I tend to be optimistic, because I’m seeing the solutions we’re focussed on at UNSW and Wattwatchers.

Given the concerns I’ve outlined, we need trusted data that can be used at a system level, because energy is a system of systems. With the right quality and granularity of data, assuming that it isn’t hidden behind proprietary walls, that dataset can improve the customer experience, do customer segmentation, reduce working capital, create new products and services, reduce system prices and improve system reliability. It will enable outage predictions and recovery, demand response, distributed energy resource optimisation, and system optimisation.

Regulators are starting to take notice and regulations are starting to align with enabling technologies. 

But the data that’s coming will be like standing in front of a fire hydrant trying to get a drink. It’s coming at scale, and at speed. We will need to partner to invest in it, to make sense of it, to deliver actionable insights, and to create value.


*Learn more about Justine Jarvinen, aka ‘JJ’, via her profile on Women on Boards