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Special Edition: "Utility Data Collection is Being Revolutionized" with John Sciarabba, CEO of Alden Systems - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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  • Feb 9, 2021 12:45 pm GMT
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This week, the Energy Central Power Perspectives Conversation centers on the creation, collection, and use of something that’s become just as important to the utility industry as the electrons itself: data. In this episode of the Power Perspectives Podcast, Alden Systems CEO John Sciarabba draws from his experiences during a more than 20-year career in the industry to share more insights into this topic, including common mistakes that your utilities make when it comes to data collection, how to optimize the data you are collecting, and predictions for how technology will meet industry needs in the future.

A special thanks to Alden Systems for supporting this edition of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

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Key Links:
John Sciarabba’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/john-sciarabba/about

The Digital Data Revolution: Changing How Utilities Will Meet the Challenges of 5G and Beyond: https://energycentral.com/c/iu/digital-data-revolution-changing-how-utilities-will-meet-challenges-5g-and-beyond

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price:

Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast. In this show, we bring in leaders in the utility space who are keeping the lights on today and planning for the innovative new future of the energy space tomorrow. I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe, reaching you from New York City, while I'm being joined by my podcast producer in Orlando, Florida, Matt Chester, who is also Energy Central's community manager. We're digging into the digital side of the utility industry today, Matt. How does that sound?

Matt Chester:

The digital transformation of utilities is discussed no matter where you look on Energy Central and across the sector. So it's no doubt an important one. And I'm really eager to hear our guest's perspective of it all.

Jason Price:

Well, as you know, Matt, the future of the utility sector is increasingly digital. From the internet of things, giving customers more agency over their power use, to sensors and automation reducing incidents and downtime on the grid, to instantaneous data providing utility leaders insights on how their equipment is operating and informing what decisions they should be making. The digital revolution is truly underway in the utility industry. As much progress as we've made toward this more connected and data-driven world already, I think it's fair to say, we still have so much left to do that will eventually make the existing grid look primitive in comparison. Our guest on the podcast today is one of the leaders driving that change towards the digital utility, specifically focusing on the need for utility data and analytics. Data has been driving grid modernization and utilities, taking the treasure troves of data that are currently available and turn them into actionable outcomes that save money, improve customer experience, and create a hardened and reliable power grid.

Jason Price:

Given the high value of data, we've been hearing for many years how data is the new gold. Since reaching all-time highs recently, maybe the phrase should be data is the new Bitcoin. Whenever the discussion of data in the utilities comes up, you are likely referencing one of the pioneers in this space. And this is the work of John Sciarabba, the CEO of Alden Systems. John has been with Alden Systems since 1995, where he's led the company in creating and deploying the software necessary to empower utilities, to reach and understand their customers in profound ways. While these tools have evolved in the decades since he joined Alton Systems, today he's pouring a lot of attention into the data that utilities can and should be collecting, processing, and using to inform business decisions. John recently shared a written post introducing these important topics to the Energy Central community, entitled The Digital Revolution, Changing How Utilities Will Meet The Challenges of 5G And Beyond. In this insightful article, John details the database journey that utilities have undertaken recently, but notably highlights how that journey is far from over. Collection of data is one thing, but the efficient, accurate, and smart utilization of that data is another one completely.

Jason Price:

And it's making the proper use of that data, which makes some utilities laggards, while others leaders. The need to keep pace with the data-driven future is critical if utilities want to play a key role in smart cities, in IOT, and other market opportunities. Given how important of a topic this is and how well the Energy Central community responded to the article, we wanted to pull John to the podcast booth with us to dig even deeper into the topic, to get his assessment on the state of data collection in the industry today, his vision for what utility executives should be moving towards in the future, and other insights he can share from his valued position in this area of the industry. Our listeners are eager to hear more, so let's not lose another moment. John Sciarabba, welcome to the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.

John Sciarabba:

Thanks for having me on today. I'm coming to you from Birmingham, Alabama, where we're headquartered. I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these topics further.

Jason Price:

John let's tee off with a look at the current and future state of utility. When you come in and start working with a new operator in the energy space, can you reliably predict where their current practices are going to be? Do you tend to see prime opportunities being overlooked by the utilities and how would you grade the state of utility data collection compared with other industries?

John Sciarabba:

It's hard to predict where a company will be. Every company is different and while they're generally striving for the same outcomes, their priorities diverge at any given time. This could be due to heavy 5G deployments going on in their area. Maybe they've been hit hard with storms in recent years. Maybe their area is the focus of the rural broadband deployment. So we tend to ask a lot of questions initially, to understand their current state, what are the pains they're experiencing and where do they see opportunity? We often do see opportunities missed and I think that's due to three reasons. One is any initiative is competing with everything else going on in the company, competing for attention, time, money. Every company has to say no to a lot of things in order to accomplish others. The second reason is the data being utilized may not have been captured in a structured way, which makes it inefficient to work with and limits the downstream possibilities. And then lastly, folks are busy doing their job, and sometimes they haven't had time to explore what's possible.

John Sciarabba:

As far as the state of the industry, I'd say we're average. In some cases we're still using and paper, email, spreadsheets, none of which lends themselves to a scalable solution and leveraging data to its maximum potential. Some companies are doing a great job. Others are lagging behind. It even depends on where or what department you look at within a company. But when you look across industries, there's a lot of data being collected and utilized to drive decisions that improve the business. And in industry we're average and that needs to change.

Jason Price:

So if the data collection process is so critical, how can utilities that are behind the curve start to catch up? And how should providers start to build out their technologies, processes, and operations in a way that integrates data collection?

John Sciarabba:

I think the first step is to commit to the goal of being data-driven. In the utility industry, our job is to mitigate risk in order to achieve safe and reliable power delivery. Having data to make informed decisions is a perfect fit, but it takes time to evolve and maintain that safety and reliability. So we need to get started and that commitment has to come from the executives and leaders. Once we've got the commitment, the approach would be twofold, both strategic and opportunistic. So strategically identify the biggest data gaps, where do you lack data to make important decisions across your enterprise to find the outcome, and choose a solution that fits it. Then move to be opportunistic. In existing processes, where can you collect additional data that comes at an incremental cost that gives us benefits down the road.

John Sciarabba:

Technology is changing at a rate faster than ever before and becomes more cost-effective every day. LIDAR and photogrammetry are two promising technologies that utilities should be investigating and they should engage with technology providers and pilot projects so they can evaluate solutions. I think the next step though is to make incremental progress. Too many projects fall in their own weight because they try to accomplish too much right out of the gate. And then lastly, talk to each other and share experiences. Find out from your colleagues at other companies, what have they done that's worked and not worked.

Jason Price:

So we agree that data collection is great, but if the data collected isn't optimized or accurate, it can be as useful as no data at all. So what are the types of errors or missteps that you see utilities taking when they're collecting data and what are the prime characteristics of optimal data collection that would work to instill in your utility partners?

John Sciarabba:

So when we start working with someone, we like to encourage them to start with the outcome in mind. Too often there's a challenge and we jump right to the solution without getting that clarity about what are we really trying to achieve. And with that outcome articulated, we can drive alignment of stakeholders, which in practical terms means utility is going to go collect the right data to drive to the desired outcome. We also speak to them about approaching these as shifting from a project mindset to a process mindset. Data collection and utilization is not a singular event with a definitive start and stop, it's an ongoing process. And thinking about it in this way, influences how we approach the challenge and drives us towards repeatable, scalable methods. And with the volume of work coming from the evolution of 5G and IOT, this is more important than ever.

John Sciarabba:

And then lastly, we encourage them to think bigger about the data, that it's not single purpose use. If we're going to spend the time and energy to go collect this data, we want to make sure we're leveraging it for the highest, best use and multiple uses across the enterprise. And with our outside partners. So we want to use it for multiple purposes now and at future times down the road. We also work with companies to reinforce that everyone in the industry has the same objective, no matter what the role is. So inside the company and outside the company. And so we want to leverage and share the data in a way that fosters collaboration and enables everyone to serve our communities better.

Jason Price:

Okay. What if you're a smaller power agency like a municipality or co-op, you may not have the resources or freedom to pursue the same type of large scale investment projects that your peers and investor owned utilities can. So how can you get started on collecting and leverage your data?

John Sciarabba:

We would think about it as one step at a time. So we often think of data collection as a project to go get it all, especially when we're implementing a new software system. But the truth is, that's expensive. And even for a larger entity, it's challenging. The most successful data collection is incremental. We collect more data, improving existing data as we run the business. It plays to our strength in the utility industry. We're about optimization and risk mitigation, which happens incrementally, not through high-risk efforts. Some technologies that are available lend themselves to higher volume data collection while others are suited for smaller scale or day-to-day needs. And so I think defining the goals, which in turn defines what data should be collected, picking that suitable technology, collecting a manageable amount of data, because you need a place to put it, and then implementing some key activities against that data that you're going to take, and to look at how do you leverage that across the enterprise. And then go back and repeat it again and grow it from there.

Matt Chester:

So, John, you mentioned choosing the most suitable technology. I'm wondering if you can speak about whether the specific data collection tools or strategies do typically vary in smaller versus a larger utility or different types of arrangements like investor owned versus municipal. Do those characteristics of the utility change how they're going to approach the data collection and what tools they're going to choose?

John Sciarabba:

It's about having the right tool for the job and not so much about the company and where they fit, but maybe how large the project is and what type of data they're trying to collect. So for example, LIDAR is an emerging technology becoming much more affordable, but it is really geared today for higher volume data collection. So whether you're an IOU or a co-op, it could be applicable to you if that's the goal of your project. Other technologies leveraging something as simple as an application on a smartphone lend itself well to day-to-day activities where you may be collecting that data to assess the application of new assets being applied to a poll. So it really comes down to what's the challenge that you're trying to meet that I think dictates the right kind of solution. The key to all of it though, I think, is capturing that data electronically in a structured way that's consistent so that we can leverage it downstream.

Jason Price:

Okay, great. Well now let's say the data utility is collecting is accurate, it's optimized, and they followed all of this advice. What next? Data collection is, of course, just the first step. But then it needs to be studied, utilized, and put into action. Can you walk us through an example or two of the best ways utilities should be implementing change based on new data collection processes?

John Sciarabba:

As you said, we're ultimately driving to action and our experience with asset management, we see three key changes happening once data's collected. The first is, where do we store the data? So we see companies moving away from individual files or shared storage to either storing that data in an application or a data warehouse or a data Lake somewhere where we can interrogate the data for relationships or patterns, or just get the current info on an asset. The second piece is utilizing a workflow system to automate the business processes. We want to route that data to the right people at the right time. Sometimes combining it with other information to get more context and meaning and presenting it to different users in different ways, the way that they need to consume it.

John Sciarabba:

For example, an engineer may look at the information about an asset as that asset is a piece of equipment and it's configured a certain way, and it's got a certain condition right now. While a lineman may see that same information, but he'd interpret it as more of a to-do list because he has tasks he needs to go perform based on what the data is saying. And then the third change that we see is the utilization of dashboards. So we're looking at dashboards that report productivity, progress, workload, outcomes, whatever the KPIs are that the company uses to drive the business in near real-time. And we see these three changes being implemented and applied to everything from storm hardening projects to joint-use application processing.

Jason Price:

It's safe to say that the utility industry, one that's long been notoriously slow to move, is finally amid a vast and deep revolution when it comes to digitalization. But that said there likely will still be laggards in the sector who aren't jumping at these changes, whether due to lack awareness, resources, or just general resistance to changing the way they do things. What would you say to convince those who are holding out? How do you bring the slowest movers up-to-date?

John Sciarabba:

The first thing that I would say to someone who's slow to move is change is inevitable, struggle is optional. Even if you're moving forward, if the change around you is moving faster, than you're falling behind. Most of us have our personal lives digitized on the smartphone in our pocket. We're the same consumers, colleagues, staff, and supervisors that show up to the utility every day. Why would our expectations there be any different? Our job is to provide the infrastructure that literally powers our communities and enables them to prosper. We have to evolve to deliver on that responsibility.

Jason Price:

That's a powerful message, John. You and your team at Alden Systems as some of the key drivers making this data collection revolution happened. So you're well-positioned to see what the future is likely to bring in this space. We'd love to hear your best preview and predictions. What do you see as the biggest changes that will be hitting this space in the next few years? How will utilities be adapting? And long-term, what's your vision for the connected, automated, and data-based utility of the future?

John Sciarabba:

I'd start with sensor technology. It's becoming less and less expensive. We can measure just about anything today. And so we can envision there being a network of sensors reporting in real time, whether that's incorporated into smart equipment or as standalone sensors. And all that data come back to a central repository where we use artificial intelligence to interpret and act on it. I think LIDAR will also be a technology that we see more and more of together, additional data that's not captured by this sensors. And you'll see that being packaged into smaller, lighter weight, more affordable solutions that lend itself from going large scale projects down to day-to-day activities where we're having to capture data about maybe one or two assets at a time. All of this helps us move to operate predominantly in a more proactive manner in terms of managing the grid and the assets than a reactive one. There will always be events that cannot be anticipated, but then even in that case, our recovery time will be quicker with automated self-healing equipment and grid. There will always be events that cannot be anticipated, but even in that case recovery time will be quicker with automated and self-healing equipment.

John Sciarabba:

The challenges I see is that there is going to be a tsunami of data. And so how do we make decisions based on that data and not drowned in it? Utilities that adapt to leverage that technology to make the data transaction efficient and gain visibility into what that data is telling them, put processes place to manage a large volume of activity, because as we see 5G and then followed by the internet of things, this evolution is going to continue and driving these unprecedented volumes of work that we've had in the past. Aggregating data to see the bigger picture of what's happening is going to be absolutely key to be able to make decisions and run the business successfully and efficiently. And so utilities that embrace data as a valuable resource will succeed. Ultimately, utilities become completely data-driven, technology is autonomously collecting and organizing, in some cases acting on it. Where it's not acting on it, it is presenting it to our experts. So they spend their time making critical, strategic, and creative decisions that the computers can not. And that this data is shared in a responsible way across the enterprise between companies. So everybody is enabled with the right data at the right time, so we can deliver on our promise of safe, reliable, and enabling services to our communities.

Jason Price:

Well, I've certainly learned a lot about this fascinating topic today, John. Just as important as the electrons flowing across the grid is the data that utilities can and should be utilizing. And now we understand the how and why of that just a bit better. Thank you for joining us today and sharing with us your valued insights.

John Sciarabba:

Thank you for the great discussion and it's been a pleasure to be here.

Jason Price:

As John is a member of the Energy Central community, you can always reach him via energycentral.com, where he welcomes your followup questions and comments. Once again, I'm your host, Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives podcast.


 

About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is continually looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community and we'll invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics.

This special edition of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast was hosted by Jason Price of West Monroe and was made possible by Alden Systems.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:

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