Welcome Robert Brook: New Expert in the Digital Utility Community - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]
- Mar 18, 2021 5:46 pm GMT
The grid is going digital—and not a moment too soon! Everything from GIS software to automated sensors to artificial intelligence and machine learning and more are technologies and strategies that are firmly entrenching themselves in the utility business. With all these digital opportunities, it’s no exaggeration to say the sector of tomorrow will quickly bare only passing resemblance to that of the past, but the goals of that utility industry remain the same and just as critical as ever: providing reliable and affordable energy to the customers who rely upon it.
As the energy sector continues to move into unchartered waters, it will be the innovators and thought leaders guiding the ship, and the Energy Central Network of Experts is meant to keep the pulse on those leaders. As such, we continually add new voices that you need to be hearing from to our repertoire, and today we add a new Digital Utility Expert Voice: Robert Brook, President of Hecatic Lab.
I’ll let Robert introduce himself, as he was kind enough to sit with me for a session of the Energy Central Power Perspectives ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series’:
Matt Chester: A main goal of these interviews is to give context and kind of background on where they've come from and why they might be an expert. So can you start broad and talk about how you got involved with the energy sector and how that brings you to what your role is today?
Robert Brook: It's a very long and windy road. I originally started on this path because I didn't want to be in the industry that was dominating the city I grew up in. That was Calgary, so I am sure you can guess it was petroleum. You saw peaks and valleys in that industry, and I just didn't want to be a part of those. I actually started off in the environmental side of the market completing work in almost all of the local industries.
While I was still in University, I started with my own company called EMLAR environmental. We did environment and reclamation work. Just before I went to Grad School I took a vacation to Scotland and ended up doing a GIS/ observation science project at a national nature reserve called Craig McGee .After school I worked for the UN and the World Bank in Malawi, Africa but eventually ended up as the geomatics practice manager at an engineering company. That was where I started in Utilities, initially with pipelines, gas utilities, but slowly made a transition into the electric industry as well.
Eventually I took a position as one of Esri's global utility industry managers. That gave me a really great and diverse look at the industry as a whole; it operates in unique ways in different parts of the world.
Ultimately, I came to the decision that working for myself was the thing that I like to do. At Hecatic Labs, we're involved in a variety of different projects in different spaces extending from needs assessments or process redesign to work advising utilities and software/services companies.
MC: Being in the field of the digital transformation for utilities is an exciting place to be right now, but you’ve been working on these solutions for many years, before it became atop the priorities of most utilities. Can you talk about what it was like in the early days seeking to get utilities to embrace digital tools and how that compares with the journey they’re taking today?
RB: There's a variety of ways of looking at that. You can view it from the new technology perspective, the amount that technology has penetrated the industry or the value it has offered. There's a lot of ways of looking at it and often it is based on perspective. Honestly thought, I don’t actually think things are any different today than they were when I started.
It's always been about trying to convince an organization there's value in what's being offered and that the value moves the needle for them. So, the KPIs associated with utilities have changed through time, but that's what we have always been trying to deliver on. Its the same story, just different chess board pieces. It's one of those things I believe differentiates the older generations from the people that are early into the marketplace. There's a perception that what can be delivered today is drastically different than what there was before. The technology might be but implementors are facing the same types of challenges, shifting a client’s paradigm.
MC: When it comes to embracing the data and the possibilities that the utilities have in front of them, what do you find to be the most common challenge in getting them to truly embrace the possibilities?
RB: I think we could write a book on that! One of the bigger challenges I like to call “silver bullet syndrome”. It’s something I think a lot of utilities face. Every organization that purchases a product or a solution is often sold on what they are told it does. They get caught in the technology but they don’t think through the process to identify the actionable end result. So with big data analytics, as an example, people are very interested in doing the “analytics”, but it seems like the goal is often buying and implementing a product. That’s not really what you're supposed to get; it isn’t the actual goal. The goal should be what you get from it; actionable intelligence, actionable data that you can actually use to transform the organization. Big data analytics should start with a goal of, for example, decreasing the cost associated with asset management by identifying replacement efficiencies and optimizing field performance. The big data analysis is the action plan to achieve the goal. When this isn’t done, the organization fails to receive the value they expected and executive become gun-shy.
So, the challenge of embracing the possibilities of data it is really about receiving valuable results. The focus isn’t the technology, I think the focusing should be on what you're trying to get from it. Again, going back to that value conversation, if you want to change your maintenance operations, then that should be the goal. If you're trying to change the cost of operations, then that needs to be the goal of what you're trying to do. So, I think the common challenge is aligning the product or processes with the result.
MC: Are there any technological solutions that aren’t quite ready for prime-time yet but are coming soon that have you excited for the new possibilities they can bring? How much of the push remaining is on the development of tech side compared with actually getting implementation and embrace of existing technology?
RB: There's two things that I really kind of find exciting in what I see in front of me. It's not necessarily a new technology, but I don't think that it's got the penetration in the community that it could have, and that's AI.
If you focus AI on a deliverable it can do amazing things. As an example, if you're trying to determine an impact, the AI can just do things that humans can't do. You might have to perform an incredible number of queries to get the data you need and then throw all that data into a multi-variate correlation analysis. People just can’t do that very efficiently. If you train the AI to do it, it can pore through massive amounts of information. And the nice thing about it is once it's tuned as a tool, it can continuously run and provide you with constant insights. AI is expanding our ability to analyze and quantify the problems we see infront of us and generate actionable results. It is changing how we think and redefining what we can change and what our impacts are.
The other thing, and this is by no means a new process, it's the integration of tools we already have. A lot of utilities are still very stove-piped in the way that they do their work, but they have implemented interesting solutions all over the place.
The problem is there's no connectivity between those different stovepipes; nothing to connect the solutions and content. Think about a design system, connected to a digital twin based analysis platform, that is tied to a GIS so all that data is accessible, and the GIS and ADMS system work off a single network. What a powerful way to operate and optimize an organization. The benefits are limitless. None of those are new tools, but the way you connect them together gives a completely different outlook on how an organization can operate.
MC: Can you share what it is about Energy Central that compelled you to get involved and integrated with the community? And what should community members look forward to you bringing to the table as our newest expert?
RB: I go back to something that my dad told me when I was a kid, “the day you stop learning is the day you should quit”. I learn a ton from our community. I learn from that interaction, from people challenging opinions that you have, from people's different situations. I search for that in everything I do.
One of the threads that I commented on the other day was about risk and how this last year has changed organizations' ways of thinking about risk. It made me sit and look out the window for about 20 minutes considering what I thought about it, because it wasn't a topic that I would have just sat down to think about. I spent the rest of the day toying with how organizations devalue risks, because as risks change, you also need to take away risks you were looking at before. It was a great day!
Interaction with industry players, the conversations that occur inside the community and our opportunities to work together are really what drive me. Energy Central is a place full of people who have a diverse group of opinions, a diverse group of problems, and a diverse group of thoughts. There's no place better to be able to grow as a person and an industry contributor than to keep a hand in the things that occur there. So, from my perspective, what I'd like to be able to bring to those interactions are questions and opinions and thereby generate opportunities for us all to learn.
Just in the last few weeks, I've been able to establish new relationships with people I never would've met otherwise. That is so valuable. One of my closest friends, and someone I always look for opportunities to with, is somebody I met through an industry social situation just like this. I think it's the backbone of what we do. If you don’t agree, I believe you are missing out on something special.
Thanks again to Robert Brook for joining our Expert Network and sharing his time and experience with the community. As you see Robert engaging across Energy Central, be sure to share any comments or questions with him to tap into his wealth of knowledge!
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