Utilities will have to take intelligent decisions in terms of providing, managing and sustaining themselves in the wake of copious amounts of data that will get generated by smart grids of the future. Therefore, analytics will play a fundamental role in grid asset maintenance and optimisation.
Francois Vazille, Vice President, Japan & Pacific (JAPAC), Oracle Utilities, said, “Utilities will have to identify the tools that they need to implement in order to take advantage of technologies such as smart meters, and network and voltage management systems. Because of the application of the Internet of Things (IoT), you are going to have lot more field and energy devices.” In this regard, what will be important is how the data aggregated by sensors is utilised to facilitate effective and proactive decision making.
Vazille pointed out that a beginning has already been made in this direction. “Scheduling of proactive maintenance on some of the assets during business hours is helping improve network reliability and efficiency of utilities,” he observed.
Three core areas of digitalisation; headcount reductions inevitable
According to Vazille, the ongoing digitalisation was an important link in this evolution of utilities. He said the process was active in three areas. The first one was transformation of information technology through increased use of analytics. If utilities wanted to take advantage of data and add value to businesses dependent on them, they had to get the right tools and technology to capture data for analysis. It must thereupon be transformed into meaningful actions that executives within utilities could implement. “That’s the transformation of information. This change in mindset will lead utilities to seek information rather than wait for it,” remarked Vazille.
The second change would be at the workplace. “With digitalisation, you are going to have a massively improved access to information, new business processes, better integration and automation. All this is going to completely change the way utilities work,” he said. This is likely to result in reduction of workers managing infrastructure both on-site and off-site. The new technology is going to provide many new ways of understanding a fault in a grid and sending the most appropriately trained person to rectify it. “All these changes in terms of digital capabilities will ensure that utilities function in a smarter manner,” added Vazille.
However, it is the anticipation of the third shift that has excited Vazille the most. And that is the transformation of the customer experience. “If you look at what happened in banking or telecommunications, we have been given amenities that we as end users expect a firm in the service industry to deliver to us. Therefore, customer expectation from utility providers is similarly changing. Utilities will have to look at deploying new digital capabilities to go deeper into customer engagement. Of course that will be all through different channels” opined Vazille. In his view that is going to be a very fascinating development as it will have tremendous repercussions on the way people consume energy. “You will start to compare how you use energy versus your neighbour who uses the same wattage of power on similar type of kits, but still manages to use 20 per cent less units than you do. You are going to be able to add some comparison point and then influence the community on how to best leverage the use of electricity,” he said.
In an Oracle blog post, Vazille defined this process as transformation enabled by smart grid technologies that provide utilities with automation, self-healing, remote monitoring and control, and more as being vital to the evolution of the modern utilities.
Problem of information overload
A few domain experts have suggested that new sources of energy and increased monitoring of ageing grids are creating an abundance of data silos. Consequently, apprehensions have been raised that this might make a smooth transition to customer-centric grids extremely challenging. But Vazille sees this as an evolution.
“Yes, there is ageing infrastructure. Yes, there are new sources of energy that are going to be leveraged. But they are not going to meet 100 per cent of the demand. Because on days when there is no sun or wind you will still need the traditional power plants to be active,” he said. In his opinion, this challenge will only be best understood along the way as new smart grids of solar and wind power plants get launched progressively.
India making right moves
When asked if with the rapid urbanisation taking place in India put the country at a distinct advantage over developed western economies as far as smart infrastructure solutions are concerned, Vazille replied that though several cities in the developed world have not added new infrastructure in years, they did understand the need for change. Although they might not have received the same energetic push like the drive for smart cities has received in India, but major changes are taking place across most countries.
In Japan, for instance, Oracle is assisting with deregulation of gas and electric utilities. Similarly, since markets in Australia and the US are already quite mature, one doesn’t witness significant changes there as are happening in India presently. “India is in a fantastic position. You have got a very strong will at the government level to support modernisation. Moreover, some of your private utilities are introducing the world’s best practices here. And you have global thought leaders coming here to support those initiatives,” he asserted.
Vazille feels that upgradation of India’s ageing utilities infrastructure with high levels of aggregated technical and commercial losses is one of the biggest challenges before the country. He is keen to enhance Oracle’s participation in the country’s transition to smart grids.