‘Utilities embarking on pilots for the wrong reasons’

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Global utilities are embarking on pilots for the wrong reasons resulting in dozens of these trial projects failing to be converted into wide-scale deployments, according to Apoorv Bhargave, the CEO of smart sensor technology firm WEAVEGRID.

Bhargave said the majority of utilities are implementing pilot programmes to test technologies rather than to explore business cases that are associated with a solution.

Instead of testing new technology, utilities must explore the value of a business case and associated benefits for both the utility and its customers, added Bhargave. By so doing, he said energy companies have the opportunity to identify how a solution can add value to existing processes as well as expand offerings.

For instance, rather than just testing smart meters to improve energy billing, he suggested that utilities can test associated business cases such as demand response, grid automation, vehicle charging, and optimisation. This means in addition to enhancing revenue collection, smart meters will enable utilities to improve customer services, ensure grid reliability through demand response, prepare grid networks for anticipated growth in EVs, expand portfolio of renewable resources to reduce carbon emissions etc.

Bhargave was speaking during the 2021 Grid Evolution Summit hosted by the Smart Electric Power Alliance from 27 to the 28th of July.

During the ‘Beyond consulting, Accelerating innovation through external partnerships session’, Bhargave urged utilities to set up their own or join existing innovation centres where they can partner with startups, academia, other energy retailers, and regulators on research, development (R&D), and testing of technologies.

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Outsourcing technology R&D and testing will help utilities to save time, money, and resources and only focus on energy generation, distribution, and retail businesses.

Innovation centres in this case will be the ones that will introduce a business case or technology capable of solving utilities’ operational challenges or broadening offerings.

Adam Sledd, director at Dominion Energy Innovation Center, said before utility Dominion Energy embarks on a pilot, his organisation is the one responsible for testing technologies and learning which business cases are going to be fast to commercialise and beneficial for the utility.

Dominion Energy established the Energy Innovation Center in partnership with the Virginia Biotech Research Park in 2009. The aim was to bring together academia, research institutions, utilities, and other energy stakeholders together to research, develop, test, and fast-track the commercialisation of new smart grid technologies.

Arlen Orchard, board chair at California Mobility Center, a testbed set up by Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), added that innovation centres would enable utilities to broaden their technology R&D capabilities owing to collaboration with a wide spectrum.

In addition, these facilities would provide startups with the much-needed financial and resource support for technology development and commercialisation. This in turn would increase the global portfolio of solutions capable of accelerating both the energy transition and digital transformation of the utility sector.

To learn more about the role of utilities’ innovation centres in the energy transition and digital transformation journeys of energy companies, listen to the on-demand discussion here.