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The State of Utility Digitalization in 2020.

image credit: © Mustsansar Syed | Dreamstime.com

This item is part of the Advances in Utility Digitalization - Special Issue - 10/2020, click here for more

By way of background, I have worked as an executive, consultant and software entrepreneur in the energy industry over 3 continents and 30 years. My focus now is assisting emerging energy technologies to drive markets and scale. We are in an exhilarating once-in-a-lifetime ride through a fundamental transformation and I am pleased to be part of it.

The utility helicopter view reveals a plethora of discrete specialist activities interconnected by a morass of manual processes, spreadsheets and work-arounds. That is changing, in part as telecommunications and banking professionals migrate into utility executive positions and emerging technologies continue to defy cost expectations on the downside.

Digitalization is transforming discrete activities into continuous, connected, intelligent processes that transcend sectors and redefine what it means to be a utility.

Three digital solutions I am directly familiar with:

  • BidEnergy.com (which I co-founded) uses digital robots to receive, validate, process, pay and account for utility bills as well as interpret and optimize energy spend
  • BoomPower.com.au profiles, evaluates, procures, and monitors distributed energy solutions in an end-to-end asset management lifecycle
  • SyntheticData.com.au uses AI to process millions of utility images against a self-generated image of a concourse-condition asset, identifying at-risk components to dramatically reduce processing time and catastrophic failure

The latter contrasts with the first two – the initial clients were utilities. In the early stages digital disruption bypassed the incumbent players to access end customers.  It is only more recently that incumbents have woken up to the challenge and opportunity of digitalization.

This inertia is more pronounced in markets that were deregulated and disaggregated in a different technology era than in regulated vertical markets where the costs and benefits are concentrated. As the old saying goes ‘if that is where you are going, I wouldn’t start from here’

Digitalization also crosses over into the hardware that enables our grids as gateways to distributed energy assets:

  • EdgeElectrons.com digitizes power signals to regulate and smooth high voltage volatility and improve power factor, increasing customer efficiency and enhancing grid carrying capacity
  • SupraGenergy.com produces the highest performance quality graphene film for the super capacitors that enable our consumer devices, EV's and the zero carbon power grids of the future

Covid-19 has been a double-edged sword in this journey. On the one-hand it has highlighted the need for digitalized solutions where people are forced to work and collaborate remotely. On the other hand, it has led to uncertainty and deferrals of important purchase decisions. However, this hiatus is only a temporary speed bump on the road to utilities having to do much more with less.

In Australia, cybersecurity is emerging as a top issue in the digitalization journey. With the ability to connect and coordinate vast fleets of distributed solar, batteries and other powered devices comes the potential to disrupt entire grids. Highly secure communication and control, such as carbonTRACK.com’s MDT protocol are needed to eliminate the vulnerability exposed by low-grade WiFi systems.

Cybersecurity is part of a wider debate about centralization and control versus decentralization and coordination. Banking and Telecommunications experts recognize the need for distributed security and intelligence but in general utility incumbents tend towards rigid standards, ownership and control, even if this sacrifices agility and innovation – two vital ingredients in our energy transition. I expect this debate will rage for several years but in some respects, the train has already left the station.

Stuart Allinson's picture

Thank Stuart for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 2, 2020 4:20 pm GMT

Covid-19 has been a double-edged sword in this journey. On the one-hand it has highlighted the need for digitalized solutions where people are forced to work and collaborate remotely. On the other hand, it has led to uncertainty and deferrals of important purchase decisions. However, this hiatus is only a temporary speed bump on the road to utilities having to do much more with less.

I think a lot of the digital solutions will be found, in the long run, to be more cost effective and dipping the toes in during COVID-19 will demonstrate that. Is that a trend you foresee, Stuart?

Stuart Allinson's picture
Stuart Allinson on Oct 5, 2020 1:48 am GMT

Decisions always revolve around cost, benefit and risk. Most business cases focus on one of these yet digitilization can address all three. Covid-19 has exposed the risk of current practice to scrutiny, opening up a pathway to contemplate different futures and make informed changes. Digitalizing elemintates a lot of low-value tasks whilst building a much richer data resource. I agree with your observations and yes - this is a lomg-term one-way trend that will reach a new normal of how people will interact with technology in delivering essential utility services.

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