Digitisation of the Utility – A Step by Step Approach

Utilities must develop a digital model in order to provide a reliable and safe grid service of the future.
Published: Mon 02 Nov 2015

Utilities realise that digitisation is the way forward in order to cope with all the changes occurring within the energy industry such as renewable integration and the massive influx of new data. Smart grid deployment and development is growing and there is a huge emphasis on data and analytics. Digitisation is about transforming the utility across the value chain to drive most effective and cost-efficient way to leverage digital information in near real-time, to address business challenges and achieve sustainable growth.

Europe has seen a major growth in renewable energy production, particularly from rooftop solar PV at the consumer level. Due to the intermittent nature of solar (and other renewables), integration can cause serious disruptions for the utility grid provider.

For this reason, there is an urgent need for digital intervention which will help providers manage the exponential growth of data so that they are able to embrace renewable policies, as well as support customers and regulators by providing them with a safe and reliable grid and service. 

This requires utilities to manage an exponential growth of data so that they can provide a safe and reliable service.  

Utilities need to adopt ‘edge of the grid’ technologies in order to optimise their operations based on a digital utility model.

It’s at the ‘edge of the grid’ that utilities traditionally do not have a great deal of visibility because of existing legacy technology such as SCADA which does not scale down to the customer level.  Utilities are being forced to some extent to go digital right down to customer level. This is according to Bradley Williams, Vice President, Industry Strategy, Oracle Utilities, who will be speaking at European Utility Week.

Driving competition and customer satisfaction

Digitisation is bringing the energy market to a more granular level, says Mr Williams. Customers are now able to participate with their energy resources in market operations, with very scalable solar and energy storage projects. Voluntary participation in demand response is another way in which customers can take part in the market.

However, it’s been difficult for European utilities to move quickly as they operate in a highly regulated environment,  have not been incentivized to drive digitization, and  adhere to very conservative measures.  

“While they are moving at a methodical pace, regulators can do more to help utilities make a faster transformation towards digital.  This requires leadership within the utility to want to drive digitisation,” explains Mr Williams.

He adds that utilities’ processes can be slow, with pilots often taking four to five years before large- scale deployments become a reality. Often, by the time they are ready to deploy, the technology can become obsolete.

“To make the process faster, regulators need to provide more directive. Utility leaders also need to embrace change and support the move towards digitisation.  Some utilities can’t get their arms around that this is the way forward.  There will be some internal push back and conflicts on the best approach, but ultimately it requires leadership that is willing to think outside the box because traditional business models and processes are falling away .”

Harnessing valuable data through analytics

The idea is to provide a digital information architecture that will support the utility’s vision for the future, says Mr Williams.

“Utilities must acknowledge that this transformation will not happen overnight. They need to understand the vision now so that it gives them something to work on to get closer to that vision. A big part of that is some of the big data and information architecture that is required to make that happen. Being able to manage and model that data is where we see some of the key enablers.”

Mr Williams points out that utilities are probably using only a fraction of their data to transform their business into a more digitized one. He suggests that they should focus on obtaining significant value from a proper data analysis process. For instance, by using some of the end use edge-of-the-grid metering data, utilities can carry out effective asset performance management and pick up on assets that may be at risk.

With this kind of data, utilities are able to formulate appropriate grid operational models and planning models, as both are becoming more complex.

“The modelling effort is growing at an exponential rate because utilities are no longer just looking at MV circuits. They must also look at the LV side to model consumer technologies to optimise the grid and enhance grid reliability and safety. They must look deeper into the LV side where there hasn’t been a lot of visibility. Oracle Utilities can provide tools to model and manage edge-of-the-grid LV models that haven’t been visible up to now.”

Mr Williams predicts that the focus on data science within the utility business process will grow. Already, utilities are hiring contractors and using vendors such as Oracle Utilities for their analytics skills. He adds the utility space has recently become an extremely interesting sector for these scientists and ‘bright young graduates’.

The building blocks of digitisation

According to Mr Williams, every initiative should be a step closer towards the vision of becoming a digital utility. “While the transformation cannot be made overnight, initiatives must support the strategy towards attaining future goals. In fact, there are things we can do today that get us much closer to achieving these goals.”

He adds that it is important that emerging leaders in the energy industry are equipped to adopt and realise this vision. 

“And this is what we appreciate about European Utility Week--it draws current and emerging leaders and we get to hear and learn about some of the best practices of those who are working towards that vision. This helps us to improve our service and help our customers to transform their businesses. There has been a gap in utility management--especially at the edge of the grid—and we want to share what we have learned with the industry in order to help them realise the vision of the digital utility.”