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Future Face of the 21st Century Utility

Posted to IFS / Clevest in the Utility Management Group
Enrique Ochoa Reza's picture
Industry Leader, Utilities IFS

Enrique has served as a Federal Congressman and Secretary of the Energy Commission in the Mexican Congress. Previously he held positions as the CEO of the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE)...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Nov 10, 2021
  • 402 views

Utilities rely on technology to increase operational efficiencies and cost-savings. But innovation is also critical in how we respond to increasingly unpredictable events resulting from climate change.

Many stations have made the costly decision to install EV charging units, which can cost $100k a pop.

It’s a hard cost to justify, given that EVs currently make up <1% of cars on the road. But the industry is experiencing a rapid rise: 4 in 10 consumers say they’d consider buying an EV for their next car, and stand-alone EV stations are popping up all over the country to serve them.

EV-agnostic stations — and smaller operations that can’t afford the pre-emptive expense — risk getting left behind in the long term.

Utilities rely on technology to increase operational efficiencies and cost-savings. But innovation is also critical in how we respond to increasingly unpredictable events resulting from climate change.

Today we find ourselves in the early stages of a fundamental shift. Motivated by the desire to help our planet while safeguarding our communities and workers, we must learn to innovate beyond our traditional model to help us accommodate whatever lies ahead.

In this blog post, we will examine some of the changes that are underway and what a sustainable future may hold for the 21st century utility.

Sustainability

Sustainability has (and will continue to have) the biggest impact on utilities. From distributing renewable energy to reducing the carbon emissions we generate from our operations.

Today, due to the unpredictability of climate change, we’ve been forced into a reactive state. We barely have time to focus on the future as we’re thrust onto the front line, dealing with catastrophic wildfires, flooding, and extreme weather events. Never before have we seen such devastation. Never before have our communities and workers faced such grave risk.

If nothing else, our experiences have painted a stark picture of what lies ahead. The pressure to shift from a traditional energy model to one that is more sustainable has become an imperative—for the utility and for our planet.

Yet we see glimpses of a better future. For example, homeowners who kept the lights on during the Texas outages in 2021 by tapping into energy sources stored off the grid. Even more recently, Tesla filing to become an electricity provider in Texas—an incredibly meaningful step forward in our path to a more distributed and sustainable energy model.

As humanity shifts to a greater reliance on renewable sources such as small hydro, solar, hydrogen, and wind power, we must quickly decentralize how we store and generate energy.

For many utilities, existing infrastructure is incapable of supporting such a diverse range of energy sources and related assets. Our only path forward is through rapid innovation.

Distributed energy models

The drive towards sustainability will forever change how utilities work. Energy sources are distributed rather than centralized. Instead of “owning” these sources, utilities will become stewards, working in partnership with energy owners.

Decentralized systems will tap into a range of energy sources. Generation occurs closer to the point of consumption versus traveling great distances before it can be used, with excess energy sold back to the larger grid for redistribution.

Along with greater diversity and access to greener energy, this model provides better stability to the grid. It does this by storing energy when supply exceeds demand, feeding it back into the grid during peak hours.

Utilities will play a critical role in all of this, relied upon to share our expertise, and even contracting our services to help support and maintain the new model.

Modern infrastructure

Infrastructure changes are inevitable. For example, a hydroelectric utility will not have the systems to support solar and wind farms, especially when these sources are owned by various customers and businesses spread across a vast geographical area.

But diversification is coming—and the infrastructure needed to harness this new model will require the same maintenance and oversight as a traditional model.

A “rip and replace” of existing infrastructure isn’t required, however, the operation must be modified and new technologies implemented to expand capabilities. For example, advanced distribution management systems (ADMS) will no longer be sufficient. Instead, the utility must incorporate advanced modeling systems to handle the multitude of renewable energy assets.

Enterprise asset management (EAM) systems must incorporate a new category of assets that didn’t exist before. Along with capitalization information, utilities must integrate maintenance, repair, deprecation, and replacement cycles into the system to ensure compliance with regulatory and safety standards.

With assets distributed across a wide range of geographical areas, extended oversight is critical. New innovations such as geographical information systems (GIS) will become commonplace, helping utilities monitor assets in real-time, regardless of location.

Distributed workforce

A broader distribution of energy sources and equipment will also impact the workers who must attend these greener assets in the field.

Faced with unpredictable field conditions and increasing pressure to perform remote work quickly, workers will rely on mobile workforce management (MWM) technology to ensure inspections and maintenance work are carried out safely and on schedule.

Real-time data transfer from workers in the field to backend systems is imperative. Information such as asset repairs, updates, replacements, and field conditions must be incorporated into the analytics, planning, and scheduling for the utility. These insights will inform strategic and operational decisions.

Data management

This integration of the workforce is supported by the integration of real-time data across the operation, especially as assets diversify and distribution locations expand. Since these renewable energy sources play a big part in sustainability and grid stability, the utility must leverage all of its data to optimize the operation.

For example, accurate data can be used to build a comprehensive spatial view of the operation. Within this model, predictive maintenance cycles are incorporated into the EAM system, which in turn activates the MWM system.

Using geospatial and other data, the MWM system intelligently dispatches employees to perform the work—feeding real-time data drawn from activities and conditions in the field, into EAM, CIS, and other backend systems.

This bi-directional flow of data to/from mobile workers serves a critical purpose: data is never out of sync with what’s happening in the field, and asset records are consistent across all systems.

With integrated, real-time data, the utility can build what-if scenarios, estimate load profiles, determine time of day energy use, and monitor interactions with renewable energy assets, including electric vehicles, smart homes, and energy storage syncs.

Utility business outcomes

Along with benefits to our planet, our communities, and our workforce, a sustainable energy model provides positive business outcomes for the utility:

  1. Greater agility and innovation

    A shift from heavy capital investments to modern infrastructure such as cloud-based, hybrid, and software-as-a-service, allows utilities to scale faster to better serve their communities and employees.
  2. Improved mobility and field operations

    Working smarter in the field results in significant cost-savings the utility can use to improve infrastructure, customer service, and employee safety.
  3. A data-driven business model

    Leveraging a range of real-time data sources enhances how the utility plans, creating efficiencies and cost savings across the operation.  

To safeguard our future, we must invest in infrastructure that supports asset diversity, allowing us to improve grid reliability, stabilize energy generation, and reduce risk.

Many utilities are already stepping up and investing in new technology to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. As discussed in this post, this can include renewable energy sources with a decentralized generation model. But there is also battery storage, microgrids, environmental management, and other innovative tracks that will support our path forward.

With innovation on our side, we can move towards a sustainable energy model for utilities, uncovering new opportunities, important business insights, and enhancing how we work across the entire operation.

To learn more read the Zpryme industry research paper on Predictive Asset Maintenance for the Decentralized Utility.

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Clevest, an IFS company, provides the most technically advanced mobile workforce management and advanced network deployment solutions for energy and water utilities.
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