“Distributed Energy Resources are fast becoming a challenging proposition for the grid,” according to Martin Dunlea, senior director utilities industry strategy, utilities global business unit, Oracle Utilities.
A participant at the CEO Forum at the upcoming African Utility Week, Dunlea speaks to the African Utility Week team in an exclusive interview.
Let’s start with some background on Oracle’s work in the energy and water industries – there is a proud history there.
Achieving operational excellence is a critical success factor for today’s utilities. Delivering reliability and security, gaining return on capital expenditure, ensuring safety, and improving an aging infrastructure are just a few of the operational challenges that must be addressed. From improving asset lifecycle management to optimising field crews, utilities are adopting new methods to achieve operational excellence. The key to achieving operational excellence lies in adopting the right technologies that enable your staff to develop strategic, efficient processes that deliver positive results and improve utility performance.
For more than 30 years Oracle’s industry expertise has enabled electric, gas, and water utilities of all types and sizes successfully navigate a wide range of mission-critical business challenges. Our solutions deliver an end-to-end, high value, low cost roadmap to achieving excellence across your utility’s operations and are designed to optimize performance of your information, people, and process.
Oracle brings together a worldwide team of utility experts who understand the industry, software applications that address mission-critical needs, a rock-solid suite of corporate operational software, high performance servers and storage, and world-leading middleware and technology.
Which energy projects in Africa are you particularly excited about?
- Under-utilisation of generation capacity due to low maintenance of assets
- Loss-making power utilities due to low collection rates and high operational inefficiencies;
- Ineffective and missing distribution infrastructure
- Community-based energy solutions. More affordable micro generation, energy storage, and energy demand management technologies that provide consumers and communities more control over their energy needs.
- Water and sanitation projects where high delivery cost and inability to pay and both technical and non-technical losses.
- Evolution towards smarter Utilities to do more with less. Technology as a critical component of the evolution.
What in your view are the main challenges to the industry on the continent and how does Oracle see its role as part of the solutions?
Over the next 12 months, the biggest challenges for power and utility companies will be to build a comprehensive customer experience, drive operational efficiency and excellence, and embrace big data opportunities. But rather than look on these as discreet, unrelated challenges, utilities would do well to embrace new technologies that can interpret consumption data, empower customers to manage their service and help utilities companies reshape their business models and their relationship with customers.
In the short term, the most immediate challenge for utilities is how quickly the traditional business model of distribution network management is changing into something dramatically different. Consumers are turning to cheaper distributed energy generated from rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and diesel generators. A smart approach to these emerging business challenges that includes an effective data analytics strategy is essential to making the most of DERs and guaranteeing users a reliable energy supply. It provides utilities with dynamic, real-time data on flow conditions across the network to help them better manage the integration of distributed energy sources.
If utility companies embrace these operational changes, they will gain greater visibility into, and control over, the distributed energy resources that are increasingly being used in today’s energy market. From there, they can drive benefits for both prosumers and themselves.
How important is off grid generation for Africa’s economic future in your view?
The lower cost of renewables and rising level of energy-consciousness among African consumers in particular have helped to drive growth in this sector. The adoption of greener forms of energy will require utilities in Africa to consider how to integrate renewables into the grid. To do so successfully, they will need to invest in smarter energy networks to mitigate the pressures placed on the grid by the introduction of new energy resources.
These “smarter” networks will enable utilities to make better use of their data, and this data obtained through smart meters and connected devices will help them gain a more complete view of how customers are using energy and when. With energy consumers increasingly taking ownership of the type of energy they use, it is important for utilities to understand their habits if they are to provide them with more personalised services, such as up-to-date billing.
Utilities will also need to invest in localised power systems to ensure people in rural villages have access to electricity. Investing in micro grids will allow them to provide energy to local populations as and when needed. Kenya’s Last Mile Connectivity project, which seeks to connect over 18,000 households in the Kiambu County, is just one example of how governments are focusing on rural consumption.
You are part of the Utility CEO Forum at African Utility Week – why the decision to partner with us, what will be your message to the high-level utility executives and what are you most looking forward to at the event?
The CEO Forum provides a wonderful opportunity to engage with and meet key industry decision makers. It is an engaging forum that allows participants to understand first-hand the many challenges and issues the companies they represent will face in the immediate future. Understanding the direction that CEOs are charting for the wider energy market is also an opportunity for companies like Oracle to inform on how our industry solutions can meet the future challenges.
Oracle will be be introducing the concept of how utilities need to evolve new business models to overcome the operational challenges of renewables on the grid. When we speak of a utility embarking on a digital transformation we are referring to a business that is modernizing its business environment by adopting digital capabilities and then transforming the business by spreading capabilities across the business to create value.
The growth of DER generation outside the utility’s direct control is quickly becoming an issue. To control and optimise the edge of the grid requires utilities to have visibility and to be able to model all the way down to the consumer level. For utilities the question is how do they innovate to make this transformation into a customer-centric platform and energy service provider while still maintaining a reliable grid?
Distributed Energy Resources are fast becoming a challenging proposition for the grid.
What is your vision for the power industry on the continent?
The utilities industry faces new opportunities and challenges brought on by the march of a digital revolution, and by how this has changed end user expectations of their services providers. Utilities today are being encouraged to up their game to remain competitive. This means finding new ways to be more customer-centric, empower customers with proactive and personalised care on all channels and the ability to control their usage experience.
Big data, and more specifically the smart use of big data, is providing companies across all industries with the ability to get closer to their customers, better understand their own businesses and inform more strategic decisions. While the utilities industry is rich in data across all of these areas, it’s time for energy providers to look beyond their historical reporting needs and do more with the information at their disposal.
The uptake of IoT, smart meters and sensor technology also means that the volume and type of data available on individual customers’ energy usage has grown exponentially in recent years, and when analysed alongside network data it becomes a powerful predictor of future network performance. This future view allows utilities companies to better prepare for spikes in demand, incentivise customers to make small changes to their habits that will help better manage network capacity or develop new products and services to meet ever-changing customer needs.
Emerging technologies such as predictive machine learning, advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) are further moving the needle and helping utilities to transition from a reactive to a very proactive and prescriptive operating model. In short, it’s all about treating data as an asset, breaking down data silos, and establishing a process that means the organisation can derive insights from the information it collects and act accordingly.