By Francois Laborie
Digital transformation is a key enabler for power and utilities to maximize productivity and efficiency, minimize costs, and boost customer satisfaction. It can also have a huge impact on enhancing HSE (Health, Safety, and Environment) conditions of stakeholders, including employees, customers, and even legislators. Embracing digitalization creates flexibility and adaptability in uncertain situations, enabling operational resilience in the face of even the most challenging environmental or epidemiological disruptions. In a situation like the COVID-19 pandemic, or environmental emergencies like hurricanes, a fully-digitalized operation can be lifesaving. Digitalization is the practical, economical, and responsible practice for power and utilities operators to adopt now, if they want to ensure business and service continuity in future times of increasingly frequent disruption.
Disruption 1: Pandemics
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted electricity demand, significantly affecting the power and utilities industry. As a result of nationwide stay-at-home orders, industrial demand has decreased, dragging with it the price of electricity in the wholesale markets. Low prices, supply chain interruptions, workforce disruptions, and decreases in consumer confidence have all resulted in an extremely uncertain operating environment. Uncertainty is undesirable for any kind of business, but for power and utility operators, it can significantly impact safety, security, and reliability.
Many of the challenges exposed or amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic have solutions that are easily achieved with increased use of digital tools and liberated data. Power and utility companies across the globe are making the switch to digital tools that allow them to support effective operations, despite a disrupted workforce. As with other asset-heavy industries, the power and utility workforce require real-time access to operational data in order to safely and effectively accomplish operational tasks and make informed, data-driven decisions to meet the needs of the market. Shelter-in-place and social distancing orders, like those experienced in numerous places in North America, left many power and utility providers scrambling to continue business-as-usual. A reduced or majority remote workforce had many providers realizing, too late, the importance of having the ability to access must-have contextualized data remotely. Whether it’s via a computer or mobile device, remote access to contextualized data allows critical tasks (like inspection and maintenance) to continue from anywhere.
Power and utility operators must consider ways to automate or remotely perform tasks via technology adoption. The smartest way to go about this is to aim for the quick wins first. Quick digital wins might include the creation of a real-time, remotely accessible, and secure dashboard that provides a useful summary of critical information across different source systems, and tracks certain key metrics at a power plant. Other solutions could be a fully-functional digital worker application that allows an engineer to quickly search through a large amount of data and make decisions with confidence – all on a mobile device. These are just a few of the solutions that can enable remote and expedited decision-making when business disruptions rule out onsite or in-person options.
Disruption 2: Natural Disasters
Natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or earthquakes pose major threats to power and utility plants. Access to electricity is of critical importance for communities in their daily lives. Need for power during a disaster can quickly become a matter of life and death. As natural disasters often prevent employees from accessing worksites like substations and other power facilities, it is imperative that power and utility operators prioritize remote access capabilities for essential workers. Quick and remote access to clean, contextualized data about plant assets and operations will enable employees to support the delivery of continuous service to communities when they need it most, without risking personal safety that may be required to access a physical site.
Data-driven and AI-powered applications give real-time insights into the status of various assets, which is very important for the reliability of the power grid before, during, and after a natural disaster. Real-time data is valuable, but what is of equal importance is the ability to predict how an asset will perform in the future, and anticipate potential operational failure before it occurs. During and immediately following a natural disaster, operational failure of an asset can result in outages for millions of Americans. Between 2002 and 2019, electric companies reported 1,172 weather-related major outages caused by events like severe storms and hurricanes. The number of these outages continues to grow, which means that power and utility companies must adapt quickly to bolster their operations. Data-driven and AI-powered solutions must be part of their plan.
Disruption 3: Aging Infrastructure Response to Fluctuating Demand
Another challenge facing power and utility companies is the aging grid infrastructure. In light of expert predictions that many states will reach record-setting peak demand this summer, there’s high potential for widespread outages. It is vital for utility providers to strengthen their maintenance procedures to prepare for this predicted increased demand. Leveraging industrial-scale advanced analytics and liberated access to operational data can improve the adaptability of power generation plants by better managing outages, and optimizing the operations for the continuously changing grid loads. This would ensure meeting the customers’ need for resiliency, affordability, and reliability.
Transmission Grid Operators
Owners and operators of transmission grids have to be very careful to balance consumption and production, while making sure that the power supply is kept constant. Over the past several years, operators have experienced a major increase in applications from industrial installations requesting connection to the grid, with continued double-digit yearly growth projected for the coming years. The complexity of these analysis forces lengthy and costly processes, while increasing the risks for dimensioning errors or future balancing issues. Experience shows that digitalizing asset management data and connection processes for grid operators is crucial to reduce the application process, and avoid costly grid dimensioning mistakes. In order for advanced algorithms and human experts to improve this process, it is necessary to facilitate real-time access to a wide variety of trusted grid information. This real-time information goes well beyond traditional, siloed sources; it ranges from typical IT information (like asset details or GIS) to Operational data (such as events from control systems or time series from SCADA systems), and even new information like imagery and drone scans. These accurate “Digital Twins” of the grid, available via dedicated software interfaces, have reduced connection process time by half, and lowered costly dimensioning risks.
Once created, the Digital Twins can unlock more valuable insights and opportunities, from better dynamic balancing, to radically improved grid monitoring and maintenance processes. One grid operator was able to leverage their digital twin to calculate real time health index predictions for all the transformers. Not only did this allow for real-time monitoring of the assets from anywhere (a valuable flexibility in times of pandemics) but, when combined with an AI-based prioritization of the maintenance schedule, it helped with saving valuable time and avoiding failures - unlocking an estimated $2 million in annual savings.
As we are going through this pandemic, we are experiencing firsthand the disruption and fear that can impact our communities. It is imperative that all industries, especially the power and utility industry, take decisive and forward-thinking actions now to prepare for a future of continued disruption that threatens continuity of service, and even safety of employees. Early adopters of digitalization (those who invested in better data-driven operations and digital tools) have demonstrated resilience during the COVID-19 crisis, and are better equipped for our future reality. But it’s not too late for others-- there are actionable steps power and utility operators can incorporate quickly to ensure they are well-prepared to face the next crisis head on. Now is the time to take another critical look at power and utility providers’ digital capabilities, and make the necessary improvements to ensure safe and consistent operations for all.
Francois Laborie is President of Cognite North America, overseeing Cognite’s expansion and operations in the U.S. and Canada. Francois has had an extensive career in the technology industry, serving in both research and executive roles. Before shifting to lead Cognite North America, Francois managed Cognite’s overall marketing activities, including product marketing and the Cognite partner network, as Chief Marketing Officer. He has masters degrees in computer science and engineering from the National Institute of Applied Sciences, and a Ph.D. from the Toulouse Computer Science Research Institute.