How does a self-described computer nerd find himself on the forefront of the battle against climate change? First, start with years of utility experience at Southern Co., including stints as chief technology officer and director of technology strategy and engineering. Second, add in considerable expertise in global information technology strategy, organization, architecture, and business-driven IT solutions. Finally, introduce an interest in meter data management (MDM) and associated utility software applications. What you get is one of the country’s leading gurus on smart-meter technology—a business sector with huge potential for addressing today’s environmental problems.
Could the utility meter of the future include a soup-to-nuts readout on your personal carbon emissions? Stay tuned.
Fortnightly: You’re a baby boomer, right? Doesn’t that make you an unlikely sort of person to be an expert in utility-software applications?
Waters: Then I must be an anomaly, because I eat and breathe the stuff.
PUF: That makes you a computer nerd?
Waters: Pretty darn close. I don’t quite put myself in the pocket-protector category, since I’m mainly in the strategy area now. I’m long past my days of doing coding.
Fortnightly: You deal with utility IT managers. Are they boomers too, or younger Gen-X and Gen-Y guys? How do generational differences affect their business perspectives?
Waters: Good question. In fact, it’s a smattering. Some are very experienced with the utility industry, and yet some also are new to the industry. But I’ve found, for whatever reason, that we relate with each other very well.
And we’re learning, when we send our people out to call on the utility industry, that a lot of the executives now, and even much of middle management, may have come from financial services, or retail, or other industry segments.
There’s also a little different view now about how customer service should be provided. That has changed, perhaps due in part to the Internet and dot-com companies, like Amazon, which have learned to create a new customer experience, one that emphasizes an immediate response to solving customer problems.
Fortnightly: How is the battle evolving between telephone call centers and self-service Internet solutions? Can one technology at last declare victory over the other?
Waters: No. I think there still will be a need for call centers to handle very specialized issues that may arise. And of course not everyone is comfortable with iPods and such other new devices that utilities are adopting now to help customers do any number of things— to check the status of your bill, or whatever.
Fortnightly: Cell phones will become something that is part Internet and part call center?
Waters: Exactly. It could be your cell phone, or it could be a pseudo-cellphone, like your iPod, which also provides that capability, or even your PC.
Fortnightly: Some people say software lead time is a big problem with utility IT. Because utilities are litigious, and regulators are flip-flopping, you’re always looking at a moving target. Have you run into that problem?
Waters: Yes, of course. But understand there’s been a change of thinking in the industry with IT management. Executives are saying, “Do we really have to do that ourselves, using our own staff, or do we want to go more with packaged solutions?”
And that’s exactly why we’re in business. We develop packaged software for the utility industry—customer billing, customer care, outage management, meter data management, mobile workforce solutions—applications that are out-of-the-box and that fit your particular needs and are acclimated to your jurisdictional or geographic location.
Fortnightly: About MDM, is there enough standardization across the country to produce a generic software package?
Waters: It is possible, but you need the capability within the configuration to accommodate the many differences state by state, or even country by country. Fortunately there are enough basics in the business—communicating out to the meter, collecting, editing and storing the data, estimating and verification and so on—that it’s all pretty straightforward. We’ve been doing this for years, not down to the residential level, but primarily in the large C&I (commercial and industrial) marketplace.
What is new, however, is the two-way communication out to the meter. Now not only can you accumulate data, but you can do things like turn the meter on and off, determine the status of the meter—whether it is having its “last gasp,” as we say, because of an outage—or even control various devices within the home. You’re using that two-way communications channel to turn down or cycle thermostats, turn off the air conditioner.
Fortnightly: Can you name any state or region that stands out as having architecture and protocols in meter data management that you find easy to work with?
Waters: I can’t pick out any specific one. But I can say that in California, regulators for the most part have mandated programs and infrastructure—and that includes AMI and smart meters—to implement the kind of programs that will have an immeasurable effect on the need for generation. They’re making a relatively large bet on that.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening in other places. Duke Energy is putting in an infrastructure to do some similar things. Ontario, in Canada, is also becoming very advanced in putting in some of this infrastructure. Australia and New Zealand have been doing some of this for years. We’ve learned a lot by having to operate in those markets. I don’t see so much going on in Asian markets, but there’s a number of efforts going on in Europe—particularly Western Europe.
Do we see a best practice in all of this? No, I think we’re still early in the game.
The industry still is coalescing on a lot of the standards needed to do these kinds of things, which makes it a little difficult for us vendors. But we’re dealing with it. We have to deal with it.
Fortnightly: What about utility mergers? You get fewer clients, but more standardization. Do you see that as a good thing for your business?
Waters: Well, it’s a reality. Whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen. But often, utilities take advantage of mergers to re-examine their business processes, and perhaps shed some of their legacy technologies. So, overall, we view that as a positive for the industry, and a positive, frankly, for the vendor business.
Fortnightly: Have you ever participated in any of the various industry workshops or working groups to develop utility business practices, such as NAESB, the North American Energy Standards Board.
Waters: Yes we do. We participate in international organizations, national organizations, standards boards, and so forth. But also we have our own process whereby we bring together our own customers and various elements of the industry to share our corporate strategy and get feedback on it. Frankly, that governs how we spend our R&D money on product development. One example is the AMI-MDM, the Advanced Metering Infrastructure/ Meter Data Management group, in which we are very active.
Fortnightly: Are we ever going to get there—a chicken in every pot and a smart meter in every home?
Waters: Well, I was just in a meeting session with about 60 to 70 utilities where they were asked, how many have initiatives to phase in smart meters, and about two-thirds in the room raised their hands and said, “Yes, we’re doing that. We’re making that happen now.”
Smart meters have the potential to help solve some of the environmental issues we’re talking about today, which are on the mind of virtually every CEO.
Fortnightly: Could you have a smart meter that would tell you every minute how much carbon you’re emitting?
Waters: We certainly could. Frankly, it’s not that difficult to do. We’ve already discussed that [at Oracle] and are putting it in our plans to provide something like that.