What Business Can Learn about Digital Transformation from Utilities
Besides using apps to keep workers connected, many utility companies are finding other innovative solutions to various problems they face on a daily basis. In this article, Forbes reveals how location intelligence and other technologies are being used by utility companies to increase efficiency and monitoring.
As utilities undergo digital transformation to meet new demands, utility operators are creating innovative digital solutions to challenges nearly all businesses face, including regulatory compliance, network optimization, information sharing, supply chain, and asset management.
There are real-life lessons for many types of companies found in the challenges and solutions of utility operators. Central to these digital transformation success stories is the use of location intelligence, provided by a geographic information system (GIS), that helps operators monitor real-time data streams and plot critical analysis on easy-to-grasp smart maps.
“I think everything a utility does is around location,” said Kevin Prouty, Group Vice President for IDC Energy and Manufacturing Insights, in a recent WhereNext article. “Every utility has some form of geospatial system. They have to.”
Other businesses are coming to that conclusion as well.
Employees Access Real-time, GIS-assisted Data
Even when a business recognizes the need for location intelligence, the technology will have limited impact if the data remains in an obscure format few can access or use.
Managers at a major water utility in Tennessee came to that conclusion after years of frustration spent trying to extract information from siloed databases while customers grew irritated and workers dispirited over the time-consuming process.
After temporary fixes failed, the utility’s general manager realized they had to modernize their information system so that everyone at the utility could retrieve easy-to-understand, real-time data about operating conditions and the physical location of field crews.
A GIS-based mapping system that analyzes data from pumping stations, underground pipes, and company vehicles allowed employees to see where leaks occurred, where trucks and service personnel were located, and who could get to the site the fastest. At the same time, company reps also could access summaries of customer needs and equipment repairs to guide responses.
The new system saved hundreds of thousands of dollars through faster leak detection and repair. The utility’s engineering team estimates the total direct savings to be $1 million per year, with more than $200,000 of that coming from early leak detection. Through better capital improvement expenditures that led to deferred bond issuing, the company saved another $32 million.
Similar systems could be deployed for any business with field personnel and assets, including energy companies, transit organizations, retailers, real estate operators, and service-related businesses. The approach also could apply to any company that needs operational awareness of its entire system, predictive algorithms to help prevent big problems, and silo-free information.
Remote Sensors Let Companies Keep Pace in Fast-Changing Markets
Ensuring there is enough electricity flowing through transmission lines has grown more complex as demand climbs and supply changes – such as consumer generated power from solar panels.
Some groups have tried to leave the corporate power grid completely by creating their own microgrids to harness solar, wind, or thermal energy. But even traditional customers with solar panels often produce more electricity than they can use or store. Instead of wasting it, they let their utility companies put surplus from a microgrid back on the major grid for sale. Companies then take a fee for essentially acting as an energy broker, rather than a supplier.
Financial analysts predict microgrid market share will increase by 19 percent between 2017 and 2024, when it will be worth $19 billion.
“Renewables and prosumers – those who both consume and produce energy – will drive some of the greatest impacts across the future grid,” said Don Carson, Esri’s Utilities Practice Manager. “Operators use GIS to model all the modern elements in greater detail for better analysis and understanding.”
The business implications are widespread, as more vehicles and roadways are equipped with sensors that stream data about speeds, traffic patterns, crashes, and delays. As roadway conditions change by the minute and transportation modes increase with the possibility of automated vehicles and drone deliveries, it’s clear a GIS that tracks, analyzes, and maps in real time is crucial for management and prediction.
Augmented Reality Saves Time and Money
One New Jersey utility wanted to lower costs associated with marking utility lines above ground before doing routine maintenance of underground assets.
Poorly marked maps created ongoing problems. It led to digging in the wrong location when missing by inches can leave a neighborhood without water or power and force a utility company to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fix it.
To avoid those nightmares, the utility turned to an emerging technology that allows maintenance workers to see into the ground with mixed-reality glasses to find the exact location of utility lines as represented in 3D holographic images. Those images combined with live video from the user’s goggles or glasses can be shared with managers back at the main office.
There, experienced supervisors can oversee repairs and bring their expertise to the worksite without leaving their regular duties – especially when driving to the scene could involve long traffic delays and extra mileage costs.
For any company, precise holographic mapping starts with digitalizing information and using GIS software to provide ongoing location intelligence. Extending the eyes and ears of supervisors can save money for companies that maintain assets in the field, build or repair complicated structures, or just need to remotely assist less experienced workers.