The way we get power to our homes and businesses is changing. And while our dependence on local power utilities for our supply of electricity will not change, one thing that will is the level and type of services the utilities provide us. The steady flow of power supply we’ve come to expect will soon be just the starting basic service package, and will grow to a host of new value-added services.

For decades utilities have had the privilege of being exclusive service providers in their territories in exchange for providing a common good — one level of service offering to all customers while earning a modest rate of return to build, operate and maintain the power lines and substations. This simple model has served us well and provided an economic and reliable supply of abundant power to support our industries, grow our economies and afford us the modern amenities of life we enjoy today.

Maturing of newer technologies and consumer preference for living with low environmental impacts is enabling customers’ options to either go completely off the grid through self-generation or significantly reduce the amount of power they draw from the grid by augmenting their supply with partial self-generation options. The same shift that happened with the wireline telecom companies in the ’90s, and the shift that has taken the taxi industry by storm with entrance of new unregulated competition, is about to happen to the utility industry.

The cost reductions due to maturing of technologies and installation techniques in rooftop solar and wind turbines combined with battery storage or micro gas turbines will soon provide a cost effective, reliable and safe alternative, allowing individual residential or commercial customers to choose to either connect to their local utility’s traditional wires for power supply or install their own source of supply in their homes at a cost that over time can be cheaper than power from the grid. Similarly, land developers building new communities will have a choice between getting the traditional wire service from their local utilities or by installing their own community generation, also called distributed generation. This could be particularly appealing in areas like northeastern Canada and the United States where ice storm outages are becoming more frequent. Having access to a self-generation option could provide a reliable source of power when the utility power lines are down.

Until now, customers recognize the face of the utility as a power outlet that they’re able to plug into when they need some electricity or the phone number that they call if they have a connection request or billing inquiry. In the coming years utilities will provide a host of additional services, including:

    • Service Levels — Various levels could be provided, in terms of reliability and capacity. For example, a premium service could provide backup power when utility wires are down due to a storm, or perhaps a larger capacity outlet that would allow for fast charging of your electric vehicle.
    • Energy Management — A utility-installed energy management device in your home will track your power consumption behavior and individual appliance consumption and suggest energy-saving techniques such as automatically lowering house temperature when no one is home, or recommending changing old appliances that are not energy efficient.
    • Smart Home — Features would allow you to control your home appliances, door locks, alarm system or video surveillance from your phone and be able to turn lights on/off and control thermostat remotely.
    • Home Monitoring — Such capability would provide security alarms and video surveillance of your home.
    • Flat Rate — Such rates could be offered for electricity in jurisdictions that have time-of-use rates where electricity pricing is different at peak use hours vs. in nonpeak hours such as at mid-afternoon or at night.
    • Home Technician Service — If you have self-generation, a hybrid supply option utility could take care of all maintenance associated with your home microgrid. These services could also encompass maintenance and repair of your air conditioners, water heaters and furnace and perhaps even electrical wiring during home renovations.
    • Cable/Telephone Service — Some utilities may provide additional utility services such as cable television and telephone service through their power lines using a technology called broadband over powerline carrier (BPL).
    • Car Charging Stations — Car charging stations for electric cars will be needed throughout our cities and along the highways similar to today's gas stations. Utilities are best suited to provide this service; they are a brand people trust for power supply at a reasonable cost.
    • IT Support Service – IT technical support and data backup and management by partnering with a data management and computer technical support company.
    • Home Energy Audits – Inspection and testing of home energy loss from windows, doors and wall insulation, and checking for efficiency of your home furnace.

The traditionally slow-changing world of utilities — often considered mundane compared to the fast paced and glamorous world of information technology and telecom companies — is about to get exciting. We’re entering the bold new world of smart, self-healing, technology-intensive and distributed microgrid, and there has never been such an exciting time to be in the utility sector.

To learn more about where the utility transformation is headed and what new technologies and service models utilities around North America are implementing to stay ahead of the changing world, subscribe to our monthly webinar presentation series by following this link:

The Next Generation Utility Webinar Series

Ahsan Upal is a regional manager with Burns & McDonnell responsible for Canadian business development and leading engineering, project management and regulatory teams for major electrical distribution and transmission projects across Canada and the United States.