Treating Grid Data as a Utility Asset: Exclusive Conversation with Matt Webb of UK Power Networks - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Digital Utility Group
image credit: Matt Webb
Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • May 9, 2019

Everywhere you look, utilities are getting smarter and implementing new grid management strategies, efficiency programs, and innovative approaches to ensuring affordable and reliable delivery of power to their customers. Behind all of these new and evolved approaches is a valuable constant—utilities are using more data in more intelligent ways to accomplish their goals. Because of the importance of this data, companies must increasingly treat such data as an asset itself.

That’s the argument made by Matt Webb, Head of Asset Information at UK Power Networks. As a major electricity supplier, UK Power Networks is constantly looking to find new ways to increase reliability, resilience, and affordability of power delivery, and Matt helps lead to charge in utilizing data management to accomplish that task.

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In fact, Matt is set to present at next week’s Grid Asset Management 2019 conference, where his talk is titled “Asset Information Management – embedding a best-in-class data management framework that supports the delivery of actionable insight from high volumes of complex and unstructured data.” Before heading to the conference, he was kind enough to answer some pressing questions I had about the approach from UK Power Network to data management to share with the Energy Central community. And if your interest is piqued, don’t miss his presentation on Day 2 of the Grid Asset Management Conference.

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Matt Chester: Your presentation at the conference will focus on creating an asset data management framework. What is your background in this area and why is a topic you find is important for utilities today more than ever?

Matt Webb: I have worked in the utility industry and asset management for 11 years and specifically within the asset information arena for the past 7 years. I think I am similar to many of my counterparts in that I am not in this discipline as a result of any preconceived plan. The fact is that I am a generalist at heart with an interest and understanding that bridges engineering, information technology, and asset management, which serves me well in being able to navigate an increasingly complex business environment.

It is this latter point that is driving the increasing importance of data management within all asset management organizations. Quite simply, digital capabilities are predicated on reliable, readily consumable data.  Recognizing data as an asset in its own right and establishing a robust framework for its management is therefore fundamental to the success of any digitally enabled organization.


MC: UK Power Networks has already tested and proved its intelligent centralized software platform to these monitoring and controlling of distributed energy resource (DER) needs, with the next step being scaling it up. What are some of the challenges you envision coming as this technology starts to scale to the wider network?

MW: The management of DER is a key aspect of our transition to a distribution system operator (DSO) with the objective of being able to respond to the changing needs of customers, both now and in the future, delivering a decentralized, decarbonized, and digitized energy system at lowest possible cost.

Over 9 GW of distributed generation, of which half is from renewable sources, is already connected to UK Power Networks across London, the East and South East of England. A key enabler for this has been our Flexible Plug and Play initiative, which has allowed developers of renewable generation projects that are willing to accept a level of curtailment of their output, to be connected and controlled via Active Network Management (ANM), in order to attain a faster and cheaper connection.

In 2018 we became the first ever electricity network to adopt a flexibility first approach, using flexible energy resources to add capacity during peak times instead of spending customers’ money on new infrastructure like substations and cables. Our flexibility approach has saved customers £120 million over the two years to 2016 and 2017. It is estimated that the UK could save £17 to 40 billion across the electricity system from 2018 to 2050 by deploying flexible technologies. We have committed to procure 200 MW of flexibility by 2023.

The scaling of our ANM capabilities to allow more DER connection opportunities across our entire network is the next step in our journey. This transition necessitates the development of data driven techniques to model whole-system network behavior and the enablement of new interactions within key business processes such as operations, new connections, customer services and planning. The development of the new skills, processes, and systems to ensure the effective management of this capability presents an exciting challenge.

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MC: You talk at the conference will specifically address preparing the grid for a rapid uptake of electric vehicles. How quickly do you expect the expansion of EVs to become a significant issue for utilities in the UK? What challenges does that pose? Are there opportunities for EVs during this revolution, as well?

MW: UK Power Networks already has 43,000 plug-in EVs and 18,000 charge points across our network footprint. By 2030 we estimate this will increase to between 1.6 and 3.5 million vehicles. This therefore presents an immediate challenge for all electricity distribution network operators but one for which UK Power Networks are well prepared.

We are already supporting Transport for London in attaining a zero-emission bus fleet by 2037 and have assessed the requirement to electrify all 66 garages in our network area, with six garages commissioned to date. We are also supporting the Greater London Authority to make 300 rapid chargers available by 2020.

The key challenge presented by the uptake of EVs is in our ability to forecast where and when the increased load demand will materialize. Larger, planned rollouts like those outlined above are relatively easy to manage and accommodate on our network. More organic, residential level uptake is harder to predict and we are developing our predictive analytic capabilities to ensure we are able to meet our customers’ needs.


MC: Another important topic you’ll address is the treating of utility data as an asset in the first place. Can you talk briefly about what exactly the implications are of this type of framing and how it is a change from the previous paradigm?

MW: Data, for many, is a highly conceptual and slightly ethereal thing. Various analogies have been coined over the years to help people relate to and understand data; ‘data is the new water’, ‘data is the new oil’ and so on. These tend to focus on the ‘value’ related aspects of data and from my personal perspective, thinking of ‘data as an asset’ makes the most sense in terms of giving it substance.

In the simplest of terms, asset management is about maximizing value and minimizing the risk presented by any given asset, whether that be financial, physical, or human assets. Data is no different – it must be managed properly to ensure that the risks are controlled and that its full potential value is realized through effective consumption and analysis that inform insight-driven action and outcomes. 


MC: Are there any aspects of data management in the utility sector that you think would be particularly surprising to someone who isn’t as knee deep in the field as you are? Are there aspects that are misunderstood or overlooked?

MW: In the past, the scale, complexity and criticality of data management within the utilities and infrastructure industries has been underappreciated. What is often understood least is the actual and potential cost of poorly managed data in terms of operational inefficiency and misinformed decision-making.

The good news is that as digital aspirations grow and our dependence on reliable, readily accessible data increases, perceptions and understanding are rapidly changing. Data management will however always be eclipsed by exciting new technologies and techniques like machine learning, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, but it must always be understood that data is the lifeblood of all such capabilities. 

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MC: The importance of data to utilities has obviously evolved as data has become more prevalent to collect and the ability to benefit customers and the grid alike with its proper use has strengthened. How do you see this evolving further in the future?

MW: I believe we are still in the early stages of truly understanding the full potential of our data in terms of the benefit it presents to our customers and stakeholders. A key aspect of this relates to our ability to open up and actively share our data with external parties.

At a national and industry level, there is an increasing movement towards promoting data sharing. Various collaborative initiatives are being established which aim to explore the facilitation of data sharing and ways in which those datasets can be exploited for the greater public good.

The journey to achieving this entails various issues that need to be overcome including commercial, legal, regulatory, and ethical considerations. The growing emphasis on the sharing of privately owned infrastructure data will see things move quickly in the coming years, presenting significant opportunities to all participants and our customers.


MC: A question I like ending on ahead of these conferences is to ask if there are any presentations other than your own at the even that you’re particularly looking forward to attending? Or any broad topics you want to learn about as an attendee rather than a presenter?

MW: The presentations I tend to enjoy most are those delivered by peer organizations who are describing their direct experiences and achievements.  Given our current focus in UK Power Networks, those that relate to digital strategy development and the associated implementation are of particular interest.

One presentation that has caught my eye is that being delivered by Erica Niemi - Head of Asset Management Strategy and Support at Svenska Kraftnät.  This will be covering the subject of Change Management and the adoption of new processes in a data driven environment.  This is an area that I consider key to success in any digital transformation but one which is often overlooked given the inclination to focus on shiny new technologies.


Interviewer's Note: Matt will be discussing these issues and more during his presentation at Grid Asset Management 2019 Conference, taking place in London from May 14 to 16. As mentioned, this presentation is titled “Asset Information Management – embedding a best-in-class data management framework that supports the delivery of actionable insight from high volumes of complex and unstructured data.”

To see more information about and to register for the Grid Asset Management 2019 being put on by Smart Grid Forums, click here



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