By Christine Easterfield, Contributor
When we take a look back to see what new technologies have been talked about as challenging the accepted ways at utility companies, we can identify certain trends that are rising to the top. Typical among the technologies cited by utility stakeholders are cloud computing, digital transformation and IoT, electric vehicles, distributed/renewable energy sources and security. This article offers an analyst's perspective on how utilities can make the most of these technology trends and use them to improve the customer experience.
While utility companies have been considered conservative in many ways and certainly slower to adopt cloud services than other industries, this is changing fast. Even though the core business of managing and maintaining distribution networks may be slower to adapt, as utility companies continue to develop more customer-centric businesses, cloud services present an appealing way to engage with customers.
Retail-only utilities especially are using cloud services to present a single look and feel across multiple platforms without heavy investment in IT skills and infrastructure. Cloud solutions also enable the use of complex analytics of high volume data that would not have been possible previously, informing network planning, management and maintenance.
In many ways, utility companies have been ‘smart’ operators for years. Instrumentation and telemetry across transmission and distribution networks inform supply and demand management across all utilities. The latest IoT technologies — smaller, smarter sensors and faster communications networks — mean that more elements of the network can be monitored and the resulting data analyzed to improve service to the customer.
Unplanned outages can be detected and resolved more quickly; equipment can be monitored for maintenance status and action taken before failure. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be integrating with other ‘smart’ organizations as buildings, cities, industrial sites and whole communities become more instrumented.
There has always been a background hum of ‘electric vehicles’ – forklift trucks, battery electric vehicles, public service buses and so on — but what we are really talking about here is the increase in electric cars. With consumers’ concern about emissions from gas and diesel engines, electric cars are rising in popularity.
EVs raise issues for local utilities who need to support vehicle charging — whether drawn from the domestic supply, commercial premises or the growing network of charging points along the roadside. Add to this the possibility of using the car battery as temporary storage with vehicle-to-grid technology (V2G) — charge up the car battery from the grid overnight at lower rate tariffs and discharge direct to the consumer during the day — and traditional patterns of energy use become distorted. Predicting these changes in demand and providing infrastructure to deliver is still a challenge.
Renewable and Distributed Energy Resources
Renewable energy sources (solar, on- and off-shore wind, hydro, biomass) are now a given. Concerned consumers are increasingly requesting supply from so-called ‘green’ sources. The difficulty these sources pose is that they are typically located away from traditional energy sources and new infrastructure is required to connect them to the grid.
More problematic are the small-scale rooftop solar and neighborhood microgrids that are becoming more common. These distributed energy resources (DER) provide energy to local consumers and both supplement supply from the grid and supply surplus back to the grid. This two-way flow is a new phenomenon for most utilities and requires new tariffs and billing services, as well as more complex demand forecasting.
Security (Cyber and Physical)
The very thing that puts many utilities ahead in the IoT world — their connected equipment — is what is also causing concern over security. Higher fences may prevent someone torching a transformer but cyber threats are harder to spot. Risks can stem from older equipment originally intended only for local network connections that could now be hooked into the internet — perhaps to support cloud-based monitoring applications. By connecting older control systems to the internet, they provide an access point to the wider network that was never intended.
A report from the Centre for Risk Studies indicated that 15 percent of cyber-attacks in the UK are targeted at the Energy business. Further, the result of a major attack, one causing a long-term power outage, would put millions of homes and businesses out of action. This would be a hit to wider society as much as to the utility company — hospitals and emergency services would struggle to provide cover, financial trading would be disrupted, transport links compromised, confidence in green energy would be at risk — so this is not just an issue for utilities but central and local governments.
There is still some way to go for Utility companies to address these disruptive technologies — but address them they will, and the changes we will see in the industry can only be good news for the consumer.
Christine Easterfield is Principal Consultant with the research analyst group Cambashi. She has over 20 years of experience in the software business covering geospatial asset management for the utility industry: assessing market needs and opportunities, managing customer requirements, liaising with development teams and running global product introduction programs.