Utility companies are better at collecting data about their customers than they are at using it to help service those customers, a new study finds.

The recently concluded study, “Utilities and Big Data: Accelerating the Drive to Value,” was conducted by Oracle Corp. and based on interviews with 151 senior-level North American utility executives. It was the second annual study in the Oracle Utilities Big Data series, and among the chief findings was that only 17 percent of utilities say they are prepared to handle the deluge of data generated by today’s intelligent power grid — although that figure is nearly double the 9 percent who said they were prepared the year before.

Other key findings: Fewer than half of the utilities surveyed use the data they collect to provide alerts or drive customer service improvements, and 62 percent of the respondents acknowledge that their firms have a skills shortage when it comes to big data. 

That shortage is one reason the industry is falling short when it comes to putting the data it collects to better use. Compounding the problem is that most utilities still take a siloed approach to their data, according to Guerry Waters, vice president for industry strategy at Oracle Utilities. “The utility industry needs to take an enterprise view of the data,” he says. “If they stopped thinking about who owns what piece of it and pooled all the data they have, the potential is there to extract very useful information about the customer.”

As an example, Waters cited consumers who charge their electric vehicles during times of peak electric usage, overtaxing the grid. With the right analytics, he says, utilities could easily identify those customers and encourage new behavior by offering discounts for car charging during off-peak hours and imposing penalties for peak-hour usage.

Along with greater customer engagement, utilities could use the data they collect to manage their assets more efficiently, for example by detecting patterns that indicate when transformers and other grid components are being over-utilized. Since utilities are an asset-intensive industry, Waters points out that extending the life of these components even by just a few percentage points can translate into millions of dollars in plant and equipment savings. 

To help utilities leverage their data without making a substantial investment in new infrastructure and recruiting new data talent, Oracle Utilities offers cloud-based analytics services specific to the industry. Last year, Oracle acquired DataRaker, a cloud-based platform used by electric, gas and water utilities to analyze meter and sensor data for optimizing operations and improving customer service.

Oracle isn't the only IT vendor with an analytics service for the utility industry. IBM and SAP also have offerings. IBM is working with Texas utility Oncor as part of its Smarter Utilities program, and SAP is using its Hana database technology at U.K.-based gas and electric utility Centrica. 

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