Tech Future: Utilities adapt to the new normal

Utilities adapt to the new normal

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted operations across sectors but the silver lining is that it has pushed utilities in the power sector to lay more emphasis on technology. Power utilities, especially state-owned discoms, have long been averse to technology reforms, but they are now realising the importance of digital solutions in maintaining business continuity and preventing revenue losses. In the coming years, utilities are expected to earmark greater capex for digital solutions including smart prepaid meters, artificial intelligence (AI)- and machine learning (ML)-based solutions, robotic process automation, blockchain and virtual reality tools. Experts share their views on the upcoming technologies in the power sector…

In light of the Covid-19 outbreak, what are some of the key technologies that are likely to come to the forefront in the power sector in the future?

“Technology is addictive; there is no going back.” Gaurav Angira, Director, Consulting, Energy & Resources, Deloitte

Technology is addictive; there is no going back. As we say this, Covid-19 has created a new normal for not only businesses but for societies and households in general as well. People have discovered and adopted new ways to work, commute, shop, manage household chores, etc. Technology played a significant role in making this possible. The acceptance and adoption of technology has increased rapidly during this period. The same is true for the power sector – companies across the value chain have found innovative ways to manage their operations. Some of the popular ones are collaboration platforms such as MS Teams, Skype, Zoom for meetings,  VR for project monitoring, and apps for social distancing. These are certainly short-term interventions that could be implemented in this period. However, the larger impact of the Covid crisis is to make an organisation prepared to handle such adversities in the future. Companies are enabling themselves by actively looking to implement strategies for providing better operations predictability and control, integrated planning and command centres for their operational assets, AI and ML for virtual quality management or customer centres and redesigning customer journey. Companies are also eagerly looking to adopt technologies such as robotic process automation and autonomous robots to reduce dependence on human resources to make their operations more predictable. In areas where human intervention is critical and cannot be minimised, companies are leveraging wearables, cognitive computing and the cloud to track and enhance workforce health and safety. Work-from-home (WFH) would be the norm going forward. This would push organisations to leverage digital platforms to optimise workspace utilisation, improve efficiency and leverage virtual resource monitoring platforms to gain visibility into work patterns and behaviour. In a nutshell, the prevailing situation has compelled various organisations including power sector companies to rethink their strategy to adopt technology. They cannot sit on the fence and wait for others to take the plunge. This is the time to plan holistically and drive digitalisation into organisation.

“Utilities are evaluating advanced security operations centre capabilities, defining guidelinesv and creating remote crisis management teams with well-defined roles.”
Hitesh Chaniyara, Director, PwC

During the pandemic, keeping the lights on and getting revenues from customers was a challenge for all utilities in the power sector value chain – given the level of technology penetration, automation and the absence of staff for critical activities. Power transmission utilities and system operators were focused on managing an integrated grid for smooth operations due to a dip in power demand. Distribution companies were grappling with the fall in demand, that too across subsidising customers; this compounded their challenge on the revenue front. Generators were suffering from fuel supply chain issues and were also impacted by despatch schedules for low demand and pending dues.

It was time for utilities across the value chain to realise the value of technology. This was supported by the trend of the sector shifting from a highly centralised structure (that largely pursues economies of scale) to one that is becoming more decentralised. Some of the technology solutions that will be evaluated over the next 24 months are:

  • Digital solutions for enabling metering, billing and online payment facilities including smart prepaid meters.
  • T&D network operations and maintenance – O&M automation technologies such as drone-powered solutions and IoT-based asset health monitoring systems are being explored.
  • Transmission service operators are adopting technology platforms for improved system operations (for example, IT solutions for scheduling, energy accounting and settlement), deepening power market operations (for example, National Open Access Register to facilitate short-term open access transactions) and integrating variable renewable energy (for example, renewable energy forecasting and scheduling tools).
  • IoT/AI/ML-enabled digital asset management technologies are being evaluated to support power utilities in improving quality of supply and reducing O&M expenses by enhancing asset performance throughout the life cycle.
  • Customer analytics using big data analytics is getting evaluated built on integrated metering, billing and payment systems for the identification of revenue losses and targeted vigilance action.
  • Customer-centric technologies such as AI-enabled chatbots to enhance customer experience and build deeper insights into consumer expectations. Social media is also being integrated with such technologies to enhance the effectiveness of the system.
  • Pilot projects have started utilising blockchain-supported platforms for peer-to-peer energy trading in the solar rooftop segment.

As utilities leverage more and more digital business models, data is generated exponentially and shared among organisations, partners and customers. Increasing digitalisation also means utilities are exposed to new digital vulnerabilities, making an effective approach to cybersecurity, privacy and forensics critical.

Utilities are evaluating advanced security operations centre (SOC) capabilities; defining guidelines and creating remote crisis management teams with well-defined roles, responsibilities, accountabilities; and enabling technology for collaboration. With increasing IT/OT spending, utilities are shifting from traditional hardware and software ownership to innovative models such as software-as-a-service, which reduces upfront costs, provides flexibility to users and mitigates the risk of technology obsolescence.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated accelerated adoption of AI-based technologies.” Saurabh Gupta, Director, KPMG Advisory Services Pvt. Ltd

The power sector is undergoing a paradigm shift with large-scale renewable energy integration, IT enablement, 24×7 quality power supply and a new wave of market reforms. As utilities adapt to this changing future, the focus has turned towards customer-centricity and digitalisation. Smart grid technologies including smart meters would play an important role in this transition. The Covid-19 pandemic has built an even stronger case for smart meters. It is now realised that basic functions of billing and customer engagement cannot be performed through traditional means and the adoption of a smart grid ecosystem comprising smart meters, digital apps, and AI-based chatbots is absolutely critical for utility operations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated accelerated adoption of AI-based technologies. The use of AI and drone technologies for asset surveying and maintenance (monitoring of assets in real time and predicting faults, if any) in power distribution would soon become a reality/new normal.

“Utilities that invested in digital technologies are reaping rich benefits today and have ensured business continuity and resiliency.” Reji Kumar Pillai, President, India Smart Grid Forum, and Chairman, Global Smart Grid Federation

Covid-19 has changed the way we live and work drastically in such a short span of time. While the entire business world changed, the changes in utilities, particularly in India and other developing countries, have been more profound because of “the attitude” change brought about by the crisis. Utilities are now ready to embrace technology. As you all know, the ISGF since its inception has been advocating digitalisation of utilities; however, adoption was very slow even in private utilities. Covid-19 has changed all that. Now utilities are operating in a paperless environment. Remember, these are the same people who wanted everything in hard copy with signature and seal – now they need only soft copies by email. Utilities wanted to run most applications on computers housed in their own premises but now they are comfortable to host them on cloud platforms. This change otherwise would have taken at least another decade to happen in most utilities. And we believe this is irreversible.

We used to preach to utilities that the value of digital assets will continuously appreciate whereas that of physical assets will depreciate. Utilities that invested in digital technologies are reaping rich benefits today and have ensured business continuity and resilience. Today, in India, less than 1 per cent electricity customers have smart meters. Their monthly consumption is recorded correctly and bills are presented based on actual consumption. However, the rest of the customers still receive bills based on estimated consumption, leading to complaints of inflated bills by several customers. In fact, most people are now spending 24 hours inside their homes  compared to less than 12 hours in the pre-Covid-19 era. Obviously, electricity consumption is much higher for residential customers, but in the absence of smart meters, it is challenging to capture actual consumption remotely. This challenge should give a big push to smart metering. The Ministry of Power had announced plans to install 250 million smart meters; it is expected that this project will now be fast-tracked.

Besides smart metering, we would see increased adoption of automation technologies in the O&M of power generation plants, and T&D networks. However, immediate changes would be visible in workplaces and practices. Some of these are:

  • Meeting/Collaboration platforms with advanced features such as virtual backgrounds, noise cancellation, transcription and language translation – both in voice and in transcription would be commonplace. These technologies would finally remove the language barrier between officers who speak English and workers who speak in their vernacular language – this is nothing short of a revolution!
  • All meetings, workshops, seminars, conferences and exhibitions would be on digital platforms with 3D views, concurrent and automatic translation and transcription in multiple languages where each person’s “avatar” would be present in the virtual meeting/conference room.
  • Voice recognition technologies would evolve faster and we would talk to most appliances, tools, equipment and infrastructure – no need to carry clips to operate elevator buttons – you can speak to the elevator.
  • Digital maps (GIS) and mobile workforce management systems would find increased adoption in utilities.
  • Robotic process automation would automate most of the measurable, repeatable and predictable operations. Many types of robots would slowly penetrate the utility domain – cleaning robots, flying robots (drones) for remote monitoring and imaging, mobile robots for inspection and monitoring, suspension robots for high voltage transmission line inspection, manipulator robots, co-worker humanoid robots, etc.
  • AI and ML tools would process the humongous volumes of data generated by digital devices to give valuable insights to optimise assets and operations in utilities as well as help them move to a predictive maintenance regime.
  • Expect over 50 per cent of utility workers to work from home/remote locations; this would change utility operations and work practices.
  • Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality applications would find acceptance in utilities in the coming years for monitoring, training and many other applications.
  • Peer-to-peer trading of rooftop solar energy amongst prosumers and consumers is becoming increasingly popular; this would drive application of blockchain technology in utilities. There are several other successful use cases of blockchain in utilities around the globe.
  • Remote working and increased automation in utilities would create new vulnerabilities for cyberthreats and utilities would have to invest in cybersecurity systems.
  • Electrification of transportation would gain momentum with more people preferring autonomous vehicles. Urban air mobility systems would be common in most congested cities by the end of this decade, competing with metros; and in many new cities metro rails may not be built at all. Food, parcel and goods delivery by drones and autonomous ground vehicles would become popular. All these would pose significant challenges to electric utilities – the need to devise innovative systems to charge flying machines and autonomous vehicles running on batteries.
  • The basic design of houses and apartments would change to incorporate workplaces and classrooms with full privacy for each family member – imagine ads for a three-bedroom flat with two independent workstations, two independent classrooms and a drone pad with a charging point!

The list is long and it is going to be a very interesting time to work in utilities.