Australia’s utilities prepare for the future

Smarter use of data, research into technology, harnessing opportunities and customer centricity is what will create a sustainable utility business.
Published: Mon 19 Dec 2016

Now in its 14th year, the theme of this year’s Australian Utility Week was ‘Building the infrastructure to support utilities operational excellence goals and future energy services.’ Industry experts who visited our onsite Engerati studio were very keen to talk about how new digital technology, centred round consumers’ needs, will transform the utility business of today.

Clever use of data

Suket Singhal, VP & Country Manager UK, Secure Meters Limited, highlighted the need for utilities to become a “unique retail business”. Australia’s competitive energy market is driving this need to develop unique product propositions, enabling utilities to increase their level of sustainability and profitability. “The retail business is very challenging and complicated so utilities must be clever with their use of data so that they can create great products for their customers as well operational efficiency.”

Lance Brown, VP Customer Service Solutions, Smart Utility Systems, says that data, if harnessed correctly, can give utilities a clear picture of where the value lies for the customer. “Customer service is whatever the customer finds valuable especially when it comes to using digital systems. Today’s customer wants control over their consumption and this is exactly what utility systems need to be catering for.” Brown adds that utilities should use partner systems to cater for customers’ complex needs.

He suggests that utilities be open to digital transformation. “They should be open to new systems and  work towards getting a 360 degree view of the business and its operations. A lot of this new technology is already available in other industries so utilities should be open to learnings from those industries.”

Taking the risk out of transformation

While new technology has many benefits for both the utility business and its customers, Art Anderson, Grid Integration Laboratory Program Manager, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, warns against the lack of research and testing in a laboratory setting.

“De-risking new technology is extremely important because utilities have to prioritise safety and reliability. The sector has a low tolerance when it comes to new technologies and failure.”

Anderson pointed out that the testing of new components is better suited to a laboratory environment, not in the field.  

Creating tech opportunities one step at a time

As with any transformation, opportunities will always present themselves. For instance, Michael Joffe, General Manager, Zen Within, highlighted the gap in the energy management market when it comes to small and medium sized businesses. Many of these smaller businesses cannot afford the bigger energy management systems out there, nor do they have the capabilities to manage them. This huge potential in the market has been snapped up by Zen Within. This will now help businesses to reduce their power bills  and help utilities reduce peak loads where possible. “Australia is a bit behind when it comes to energy management in the business place. It is not seen as very urgent. However if the technology is easy to install and is also highly cost effective and doesn’t take long to install, this point of view may well change.”

Joffe suggests that business expand their solutions over time. A slow and steady deployment will  reduce disappointments.”

Vaughan Rivett, Digital Strategist, Gentrack, agrees that small changes often have a bigger impact when it comes to customer engagement. “Things are changing fast. Study in real time where consumers are at and what they expect.  Engage with customers on their terms. Brand trust and loyalty comes through transparency, information, and communication and this doesn’t have to be expensive. Use what is available already. Do the small things that are low cost and efficient.”

The importance of communication in the business

Patrick Guthrie, SIRIUS Mobility Program Director, Sydney Water, discussed the importance of improving communication between assets, staff and customers so as to improve operational efficiencies and customer engagement.

“There is a need for a flexible communication system to cater for the diverse needs of customers. A one size fits all won’t work here. Communication modes which offer predictability, efficiency and transparency should be tailored according to customer needs and this can only be done via digital means.”

Technology has to be created around customer needs, says Guthrie. “You need a tech team behind you building the right product or service, engineering it with precision. The business needs to understand why it is creating a particular solution or service for the customer.“

He concludes: “You can never know enough about your customer. When you think you have you’re probably wrong so keep working towards this understanding through efficient communication.”

As with any transformation, change is not easy but the interviews show that there is great enthusiasm around the creation of tomorrow’s utility and it is this step which is most crucial.