The development of new technologies in the power sector such as smart grids is leading to a huge increase in the amount of information available to utility firms, which is leading to these companies turning to advanced solutions to make the most of this.

It was observed by Cisco that smart grids are regarded as being essential to the world's future energy provisions – with several countries having enacted legislation making it a requirement for them to be introduced by a fixed deadline.

These solutions have embedded intelligence and a greater capacity to deal with peaks and troughs in energy demand. Tools such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distribution automation devices can help utilities firms make better-informed choices about how and where to generate power and how much that should be paying and charging customers for it.

But because of the sheer volumes of information smart grids can produce, dealing with this is a major challenge for power companies. Cisco noted that traditionally, an organization might only take a meter reading from a customer once a month, which would be the extent of their data collection. 

Now, however, constant connections have led to the amount of information skyrocketing and many enterprises have not yet figured out what to do with this.

Smart Grid Update stated in its Data Management for Utilities briefing: "It is not unusual for power companies to still be managing data at a level of granularity comparable to that of pre-smart grid days, despite now having technology that can deliver much more detailed information."

However, it added that utilities information management is one of the biggest areas where effective big data analytics tools can be used to improve results, so there is a range of opportunities for power companies to harness this vast amount of data and turn it into useful insight.

Having the right data analytics tools can be vital to power firms around the world, with their ability to help cut blackouts a key factor. This is a growing problem in many countries, with Cisco noting that large-scale outages as far apart as Paraguay, Indonesia and the US in the last few years have highlighted the frailty of power grids.

The biggest of these, in India last July, stretched around 2,000 miles across the north of the country and left 700 million people without electricity due to the collapse of the power grid.

There are two ways that big data analytics can help with this, Cisco said. Firstly, having intelligence on the grid can enable utilities firms to catch failures as they are beginning to happen, so they can come up with solutions to prevent problems spreading. Additionally, improved understanding of grid behavior can help firms balance supply and demand so the conditions for a blackout are less likely to arise.

One organization taking advantage of this is Pacific Gas and Electric Company, one of the largest natural gas and electric utility companies in the US. It has employed process analytics in order to help it interpret the large amount of information it has – which amounts to 70 terabytes of AMI interval data alone, which is increasing by three terabytes a month.

Brian Rich, vice-president of business technology at the firm, stated the investments in analytics are making a real difference. He said: "Before we were flying blind. Now we can have much more meaningful conversations with our customers about demand-side management programs."