Big data at British Gas: a new era of energy

In 2013, analyst firm Gartner placed big data at the top of its annual ‘Hype Cycle’, suggesting that over-inflated expectations of technology had peaked and that the industry was over-promising what all this data was truly capable of. It claimed, in other words, that big data was a buzzword, and little else.

Of course, it’s now 2015 and we’ve come a long way. Since then, many big data specialists have entered the market, with numerous examples of highly sophisticated pieces of software now at the disposal of businesses. But even so, the fact remains: taking full advantage of data, and converting it into benefits for the end customer, remains a huge challenge for any industry.

One sector stands out as having the potential to be truly revolutionised by the application of data insights: the energy sector. Through big data analysis, people can – for the first time – really understand how they are using energy, how much they’re spending on it and how they can be more efficient.

>See also: Beneath big data: building the unbreakable

But it’s been a long time coming. For generations, the way people used and engaged with energy in their homes remained largely unchanged. Meter readings were taken manually and infrequently from a box hidden under the stairs, and the amount you were using – and how much it was costing you – was something you sometimes had to wait three months to find out from a bill landing on the doormat.

Now, though, this is being transformed by the introduction of smart meters, and the data they provide.

Smart meters replace existing gas and electricity meters and come with a smart energy monitor, which shows how much gas and electricity you’re using in near-real time, and its cost in pounds and pence.

This means that energy use and cost is going from something that can be somewhat invisible and confusing, to something which can be easily understood and visualised.

For the first time, customers are able to see the cost of keeping the lights on in an empty room, or of boiling a full kettle when all you need is a cup. This not only gives people a better understanding of their energy use but, crucially, more informed control.

By 2020, following what is the largest infrastructure upgrade to our homes since the introduction of gas central heating in the 1970s, every home will have a smart meter introduced as standard.

It’s a huge project, to say the least – British Gas is currently installing a smart meter in a customer’s home every two minutes.

So what does this mean from a big data point of view? The implications are huge. Smart meters capture readings up to every half hour, meaning an incredibly detailed picture of how people are using energy can be built.

British Gas has installed almost 1.5 million smart meters in homes and we’re currently analysing 48 data points for every customer a day. And that’s only going to increase.

From the types of appliances being used the most (seen by peaks in electricity or gas use), to how our energy use patterns differ across the country, information that shows a true picture of daily energy usage by day, week, month and year is now at our finger-tips.

Of course, it goes without saying that this information is hugely beneficial to suppliers and the electricity grid when it comes to managing times of peak demand, but where it gets really interesting is how it is harnessed to benefit the customer.

The real value lies in personalisation. We’re already seeing how transformative the increased visibility around day-to-day energy use can be – so how can this data be used to create an extra layer of truly tailored insights for customers?

More than half a million of our smart meter customers can now use an online tool that provides them with a personalised breakdown of their energy use. The tool takes the readings automatically submitted by smart meters, and uses this to itemise their energy use by day, week, month and year – and broken down by things like heating, lighting and appliances – to offer personalised money-saving tips.

It also introduces a very early stage of gamification, by comparing a customer’s home to similar homes like theirs – are they using more? Can they be more energy efficient? All of this is available on the laptop, tablet, phone or even in a printed report.

For an aspect of day-to-day spending with which people have typically been disengaged (compared to, say, the weekly shop or petrol bill), the response has been really encouraging.

Currently our customers review the tool on average for five minutes each visit – at a stroke we have already doubled the typical time customers spend on their energy use over a typical year.

It shows a real engagement and interest with energy that previously just didn’t exist – can you imagine exploring your energy bill for that long? Crucially, 64% of our customers have told us that it has helped them better understand how to cut their energy costs. Of those, 80% have taken action to alter their energy use as a result.In addition, 74% of customers are satisfied with the product and over half say it has improved their perception of British Gas.

Just think what this will mean by the time smart meters are fitted in every home. With this data now available, the energy industry has an important responsibility to use it to deliver true customer benefits.

At British Gas, we have a dedicated team working on this data to ensure the consumer really sees the benefits. This isn’t necessarily a straight-forward job, and having a team who can apply the appropriate analysis is vital. We have built specialist platforms and tools to help us analyse this data using the latest open source software.

>See also: How big data can make tracks in the rail industry

Our hand-picked team has been created by attracting talent from a wide variety of industries and companies, including O2, Sky, Nasa, Netflix, PayPal and Zoopla, as well as PHD students from leading UK universities. This team is critical for us to turn all of the data into meaningful insight.

We know that there is a big job to be done in building customer trust in the energy industry, and fostering a more transparent energy market. The only way to truly achieve this is to arm the consumer with knowledge and information about their energy use so they can take informed steps to reduce waste and make savings on their energy bills.

I have no doubt that the smart meter roll-out and, in turn, the harnessing of smart meter data, has an absolutely crucial role to play in doing this. It’s up to the industry to invest the time, money and expertise into getting truly smart with how we apply big data. 

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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