In the presence of the hype and ambiguity that often accompanies new products and services, selecting the right solution and developing a realistic business case can be difficult. A case in point is demand side management (DSM), one of the pillars of the heavily hyped “smart” grid.

The recent explosion of DSM vendors and industry jargon – coupled with a lack of quantifiable ROI for DSM – has made it difficult for rural and co-op utility managers to pinpoint what DSM will really do for their organization and its members. Can DR, direct load control, and load shifting be used to drive down customer and operating costs while delivering better customer service? What are the specific benefits that a utility should expect, and how do those extend to customers?

For the past decade, the benefits of DSM have been, by and large, difficult to quantify. The smaller size of most initial pilot programs made an actual ROI difficult to measure, and a broad range of variables complicated matters intensely.

However, larger-scale, real-world deployments are now providing new information on the benefits of DSM – and helping utilities to understand when and where to deploy it. In addition, exciting advancements in energy analytics now enable utilities to model and forecast DSM benefits with far greater accuracy by aggregating, unifying, and simplifying a dizzying array of variables and data sets.

Historically, utilities have suffered from siloed programs and fragmented data, making it difficult to gain a single view into operations, energy management opportunities, program effectiveness, and more. An emerging type of energy and demand-side management software – the unified operations center – is helping to solve these challenges by creating a single, combined platform that mines and unifies all types of energy information; provides insights and real-time decision making based on analysis of that information; and enables centralized control of targeted energy resources through advanced DSM programs.Utilities will benefit by identifying and deploying energy management solutions with the following seven attributes and benefits – in addition to the usual list of features and benefits.

1. Simplicity. A unified operations center should aggregate all types of data, devices, applications, and software engines to provide a single integrated view of energy data across an enterprise. For example, smaller rural and/or cooperatively owned utilities are much more likely than their larger metropolitan brethren to be the sole-source provider for gas, water and/or electricity in their particular coverage area, and a unified view of these resources significantly simplifies system administration. Moreover, a single DSM platform that can span a broad variety of customer classes – residential, commercial/industrial, and business – extends the ROI of technology investments while reducing the human resources needed to manage them.

2. Efficiency. Intuitive workflow tools that enable self-service analysis and reporting for energy management staff throughout a utility can minimize overhead while maximizing data accuracy and consistency. For example, rather than trying to gain access to energy usage information from the metering department to model a new load shifting program, a DSM operator should be able to pull the appropriate data on demand. Holistic visibility into how and when energy is used makes it possible to quickly quantify the impact of new programs and/or system changes, and make necessary adjustments in real-time.

3. Insight. You can’t adequately manage demand when you lack visibility into energy use and operational status. The ideal DSM platform delivers the insight necessary to improve operations, allowing for better management of energy to the benefit of both the utility and the customer. It empowers improved decision making, load management and pricing strategies by unifying a utility’s energy data and providing insights through advanced analytics. This insight also provides value to multiple business units across a utility. For instance, it can provide financial and back-office staff real-time visibility into operational health, the cost/benefit of new hardware, and more.

4. Cost Savings. Since they are owned by their customers, co-op and municipal utilities are typically focused first on customer/member cost savings, as opposed to profitability. This focus aligns well with the efficiency and conservation improvements derived from well-implemented DSM programs. The best DSM platforms will be both utility and customer-centric, enabling the utility to manage demand and costs, while providing its customer the flexibility to manage their usage according to their lifestyle and needs. Automated DSM control strategies – which enable customers to save energy in response to utility price and/or demand signals – provide the best assurance of ongoing savings and positive program impact.

5. Flexibility. Deploying a unified operations center and a suite of effective DSM programs is a long-term investment with long-term payoff. DSM platforms have to be flexible and provide the ability to expand over time into a broad portfolio of load management programs. These platforms must also flex to incorporate new software or hardware, and provide the ability to model, test, and fine-tune programs and incentives for maximum efficiency.

6. Compliance. Regulatory compliance is both critical to utility viability and notoriously time consuming to document and demonstrate. The same advanced analytics and detailed metrics that provide management insight can also deliver the ability to rapidly quantify regulatory compliance (e.g. power quality, outages, loss reduction) across all systems and customers.

7. Impact. The combined value of simplified administration, increased efficiency, cost savings, flexibility, and aggregated, consistent, and validated data that a unified operations center can provide will not only reduce costs and improve operations for utilities – but it will also have a huge positive impact on customers.

Matthew Burkmier is CTO of Calico Energy Services.