Insight: Utilities use of data analytics on grid operations


Metering & Smart Energy International spoke with Callaway Lauren, Senior Content Manager, Utility Analytics Institute at Informa to understand trends within the utility, data and analytics segment.

The use of real-time data to monitor and operate grid infrastructure under efforts to improve the efficiency and reliability of energy networks is increasing at a global scale.

The energy sector is witnessing increased investments in research, development and implementation of analytics technologies, evidenced by the number of energy companies using smart technologies in grid operations.

Moreover, stakeholders in the energy industry are collaborating to make use of analytics to address challenges being faced in the industry.

Recently, the Utility Analytics Institute announced its partnership with the Global Smart Energy Summit, set for stage in March at the Middle East Electricity Exhibition in Dubai.

The partnership aims “…to help utilities across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia leverage power-related data and analytics,” says Anita Mathews, Group Director, Industrial Portfolio at Informa Exhibitions.

“Data is becoming a valuable asset in the power industry. As demand for power increases exponentially, the ability to make data intelligent is a critical asset,” adds Mathews.

In an interview with Callaway Lauren, we gathered the following insights:

What are the requirements for a utility company to employ analytics on its distribution system?

It depends on what type of analytics, and how advanced the use case is. At the simplest level, one just needs data and a vision to do this. Our members perform analytics on the distribution system using meter, Pi, weather, observational data, etc.

Some work closely with vendors and consultants to develop their use cases, while others take a more hands on approach by developing the algorithms and models in-house using tools such as python or R.

What are some of the factors hindering utilities operations, how and where can they employ analytics to address such challenges?

Right now a lot of utilities are experiencing challenges associated with extreme weather. This year, our members have had to address major hurricanes (Irma and Harvey), severe wildfires in California, and freezing conditions in the Northeast. A focus on storm analytics, reliability, resiliency and outage management has really intensified over the past 9 months.

Aside from that, many utilities have a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of operational use cases for analytics. Things like optimisation of asset maintenance and work management are extremely value-driving activities.

What are some of the challenges negatively impacting on utilities use of analytics?

The most significant challenges are with resources, change management, and data governance. In terms of resources, probably the biggest challenge is attracting analytics talent. Utilities are competing with many non-regulated industries to attract data scientists and other analytics professionals, and with the focus on low O&M it’s always going to be more difficult to provide the kind of pay that is required.

Once a utility has the right people and solutions in place to establish data-driven decision making, there is a level of difficulty in evangelizing those decisions across the organization, because oftentimes they require changes to “they way things have always been done”. Asking employees that have been doing their job the same way for years to suddenly make changes is a difficult thing to manage, and a pain point that many UAI members experience.

Lastly, we see a lot of utilities struggle with data governance. Because utilities are traditionally very siloed, keeping different databases and systems of record all over the place, enterprise data governance for analytics becomes extremely complex.

In which region can we say has the highest number of utilities making use of analytics to improve operations, and why?

This is hard to determine; it’s really a global trend.

Looking at financial viability and current infrastructure and technologies, can we say utilities in developing economies (Africa, Middle East and some parts of Asia) are ready to employ real time analysis to distribution networks and day to day operations?

Actually what is interesting is that some of these countries have among the most sophisticated approaches to network management and operations. China, for example, has been a leader in modernising its electric grid in a very top-down manner based on government mandates.

Other developing countries might have different electrification challenges, where the priority to improve service isn’t necessarily real-time analysis of the grid or operations; it might be developing a solid microgrid network, for example, or even remote microgrids. Theft detection is also a priority in a lot of developing areas, which does not require real time analysis.

 What is the main objective behind the establishment of the Utility Analytics Association?

Our mission is to enable members to realise desired business outcomes using data analytics. We support that by providing a platform for members to share information and collaborate in person at events, remotely through working groups and ad-hoc interactions we facilitate, and via our community platform. We also provide research and educational resources on analytics.

How successful has the Utility Analytics Association been in increasing its membership since formation?

Really successful. We have over 120 operating companies, and 9 out of the 11 largest IOUs in North America as members. We have just added our first European member utility, and hope to continue to grow in that region. We serve utilities of all sizes, from the largest IOUs to very small member-owned utilities, providing electric, gas and water services.

Besides partnering with utility events, what measures should be employed to improve utility awareness of the advantages of analytics?

We see a lot of organizations that are newly interested in analytics simply feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand. We have developed a community of practice, where folks can ask questions and use each other as advisory resources for the most basic, and the most advanced of questions. We also provide a lot of information on the specific use cases and the benefits associated with adopting analytics.

Next week, we share a case of utilities use of analytics to optimise business processes.


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