September 27, 2018
Today’s power and utility companies are navigating a period of uncertainty: Political, environmental and social pressures are making it critical for the power sector to evolve the technology and business models by which it has traditionally operated. Radical policy changes such as regulation rollbacks and tax reforms, severe weather including historic floods, hurricanes and fires, a rapidly retiring workforce and changing electricity needs are testing utilities, compelling them to embrace digitalization… with caution.
And it’s not just in the U.S.; energy markets around the world are changing. As power grids become smarter, electricity gets cleaner, and consumers have more choices; utilities are rethinking how they generate and sell electricity, how they can make their operations more intelligent and give customers more control while safeguarding reliability, affordability and safety.
State of the Power Sector: Trends and pain points
Changing Fuel Mix
Power generation today is increasingly diverse and decentralized. The rise of cheaper renewable and distributed energy sources has led to a kind of fork in the road: How do traditional energy providers strike a balance between maintaining and repairing aging infrastructure and investing in the future? The trends towards grid parity and liberalization of the energy market are clear: 50 gigawatts of coal-fired generation capacity were retired between 2012 and 2017, and BMI expects the capacity of renewables (wind, solar, etc.) to double by 2026. Some analysts are even saying the cost of delivering power via grid could surpass that of consumers producing and storing their own energy as early as 2022.
The New Energy Customer
Becoming more responsive to customer demands (and more resilient in the face of extreme weather) requires more than just strengthening poles and wires; it means stemming the tide of outgoing knowledge and training the next generation of utility workers to do their jobs better, faster and safer. It means new services and charging models that give customers more control over their energy consumption and even manage the surplus energy generated by consumers-turned-prosumers. A digital grid powered by automation and data intelligence will help synchronize the new complex network of fuel and power providers to deliver increased flexibility, cleaner energy, faster service, and lower costs to consumers.
Making Sense of the Data
The large amount and variety of data collected as the grid gets more connected – data from smart equipment, customers (mobile notifications and smart meter data), and even drones (visual GPS, infrared LiDar, etc.) – is a challenge in and of itself. Processed and analyzed correctly, this information could help power companies stay on top of outages and damaged assets, anticipate demand and repairs, optimize scheduling, and improve customer service. But to translate all this data into actionable insight, utilities must invest in advanced data analytics along with the tools to feed information to change agents “on the ground.”
A Dying Breed
With half of their workforce expected to retire over the next several years, it’s critical for power and utility companies to be agile and adapt. The industry, however, is dealing with both decades-old infrastructure unfamiliar to younger engineers and newer smart grid technology alien to veteran workers; not to mention low-tech work tools and inadequate training methods like paper and pencil, slide decks and videos.
In addition to capturing outgoing expertise, utility organizations need to make new employees highly proficient quickly. A Department of Energy survey last year found that there are two types of utility workers in short supply: Those with firsthand knowledge of legacy systems and those with the training or qualifications to move up and replace the former. And though 74% of employees are ready to learn new skills, the number of different devices and generations of technology in a typical substation today – many lacking maintenance and repair records or even user manuals – complicates training.
Applications of XR and Wearables in Utilities
If you’re wondering how utilities are going to maintain revenue as the demand for non-renewable electricity continues to decline; you’re not alone. In order to make necessary investments and keep rates competitive given all the new players, utilities have to look beyond power generation for opportunities to reduce costs and increase productivity. One option they’re exploring are new and continually improving wearable and immersive technologies, especially augmented reality. In fact, despite heavy regulations, energy and utilities are one of the top three verticals buying Augmented Reality glasses (ABI Research).
Efficiency & Productivity
A quick response time in a power outage depends on technicians being able to quickly and accurately assess the damage and expedite repairs; but what if field workers lack the knowledge or experience to do so? This scenario is becoming more common as experienced utility workers retire before transmitting their specialized knowledge to their replacements and as the required skills for the job change and diversify (along with fuel supplies). Smart glasses present a solution in the form of on-demand data, step-by-step instructions, and over-the-shoulder remote coaching. If AR overlays fail – information like asset type, operating stats, maintenance history, etc. overlaid on a piece of equipment – see-what-I-see assistance from an office-based, expert worker would speed the job along while leaving both hands free for actual repairs. This has the added benefit of easing the impact of changing workforce demographics and enabling utilities to do more with less, as one expert in an office can remotely mentor an entire team of younger technicians.
AI-based data solutions and even virtual reality models could help predict failures to distribution equipment and other power quality issues, and furthermore dispatch the closest technician to the job and automatically order replacement parts. And with new data sources, existing utility systems of information like asset management, distribution management and geographic information systems will improve, as will the AR overlays and virtual SMEs guiding workers in the field. All of the above speeds up power restoration, improves customer service, and reduces operating and maintenance costs.
With employees spread out at multiple field locations, keeping the utility workforce safe is a challenge. Usually, engineers’ status and location are known only if they check in regularly. But body-worn wearables equipped with sensors that monitor location and risk status to workers, including hazards in their environment and key biometrics, allow real-time incident reporting and safety warnings. Real-life examples include smart badges that detect when the wearer has fallen from a pylon, smart clothing that can monitor heart rate and heat stress while climbing a transmission pole, and smart wristbands with built-in voltage detection.
Smart glasses both stream and record, meaning institutional knowledge can be reserved in the form of first-person training videos recorded by seasoned workers wearing smart glasses. Additionally, remote guidance “sessions” can be recorded, serving in the moment to help younger workers on the job and later as training material to look back at. The same can be used to design VR or MR training simulations for incoming employees, as we now have the studies to back up the effectiveness of immersive experiences over traditional learning methods.
By wearing an AR display, utility workers in any job can have immediate access to the resources and real-time intelligence they need right in their field of view. This error-proofs the work of newer employees while simultaneously training them on the job. Moreover, the flexibility afforded by XR in training will be absolutely critical as the skills and knowledge required of the next-generation utility workforce change in sync with power generation itself.
With tremendous industry-wide support, especially from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the power sector is taking a long-term yet effective approach to not only piloting the latest in immersive wearable tech but also producing the studies – hard data – to ultimately facilitate industry-wide adoption. See my next post for use cases!