Resilience in the energy transition – four utility experiences

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Security is a cornerstone in resilience for utilities in meeting the challenges of the day in their digital transformation.

Resilience is an increasingly multi-faceted term for utilities today encompassing not only the traditional storm preparedness but the many other technical and business challenges being brought by the three ’Ds’ – decarbonisation, decentralisation and digitalisation – of the energy transition.

These challenges are set to intensify into the future as the sector evolves, and as the last year has shown us with the COVID-19 pandemic and governments’ responses to it, they are coming with an increasing level of uncertainty brought about by external factors.

Cybersecurity

One example is the widely reported outcome of the past year of an acceleration in the number of cyber attacks on individuals and businesses. Cybersecurity has been a growing concern for the sector over the past decade with the build out of smart metering and smart grids.

In a recent Global Power and Energy Elites webinar, cybersecurity was polled as the number one threat to a resilient business, well ahead of the next placed weather preparedness and electrification of transport and other sectors.

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“I would say that is absolutely not surprising,” commented Vivian Bouet, Chief Information Officer of the Texas utility CPS Energy and one of the webinar panellists.

“As you look throughout the nation, the elevated sense of threats is very disturbing and utilities and like businesses are beginning to see that this is something they have to pay attention to. Because the landscape changed so significantly and it’s escalated at a pace that is quite alarming, keeping pace with that it’s going to be really important.”

The wide-ranging webinar brought together four diverse utilities from the US and Europe to share experiences on the role of data and other facets of resilience under the chairmanship of Oracle’s VP Utilities Industry Strategy, Mike Ballard.

If one common theme emerged if is that key for the level of resilience in a digital world is the company’s people, its personnel and customers.

Bouet said that security is one of the six guiding pillars for CPS Energy.

“I work very closely with our chief security officer to keep security in the forefront of the rest of the organisation. In all aspects of the business, security should be a lens in which you are filtering all of your activities.”

Skills and resources

Johann Maricq, Group head of the Artificial Intelligence Centre of Excellence and Digital Workplace at the Belgian TSO Elia agreed, pointing to the need for the right resources and expertise.

“To make this digital infrastructure secure, we need the right profile and need to find people that are able to understand the full value chain of the technology. Before the focus was more on the electrical side but now it’s about integrating systems and understanding the impacts from one to the other.”

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While Elia is well into its digital transformation with among other activities the novel data sharing initiative re.alto, a similar challenge faces the French gas distribution company GRDF as its embarks on its transformation.

“We’re a company of engineers and technicians and don’t have a digital DNA yet,” says Hélène Lagoutte, International Business Developer for GRDF’s Smart Metering Programme.

“Our challenge is transform our skills from field skills to digital and data analysis skills.”

Cloud and outsourcing

Large utilities such as Elia and GRDF are often able to hold skillsets inhouse, but smaller utilities face a different challenge.

Derin Bluhm, Chief Technology Officer of the Grant County Public Utility District, a 40,000 customer utility in northcentral Washington state, commented that his company’s approach was to opt for an outsourced cloud-based model as a resilience strategy.

“All of our systems and strategies are designed around cloud operations in the long term future with the understanding that as part of the US power grid, we’re governed by regulations around critical infrastructure. With a small population of technologists, we rely heavily on external partners but always from the perspective of understanding our risk and our risk of our connected partner as well.”

Technology in and of itself is invaluable but it’s the adoption that matters, Bluhm concluded.

“To make that possible it’s about the skill sets and the ability of the people in the team. Without the team, you get nothing out of the solution.”

Do you want to know more about the role of data and resilience in the energy transition?

Listen to the on-demand webinar