When I’m sitting and playing with my two sons at home, I don’t think about the fact that when I flip the light switch in the bedroom, the ceiling light turns on. Or that when I turn on the shower faucet, water comes out. Like most people, I only notice these things when they don’t work. When the power goes out or there’s a water line break, suddenly you don’t take utilities for granted anymore.
Most people do not realize that electric, gas and water services are delivered through a vast asset-intensive physical infrastructure that is undergoing a critical transformation from analog to digital technology. Infrastructure providers are under pressure to increase operational and budget efficiency as well as workforce productivity. The complex array of systems, facilities and processes used by utilities relies heavily on technology.
Around the world, the energy and utilities industry is transforming its business models. The energy value chain is moving to a more distributed and networked structure. However, the industry is also facing considerable adverse market forces:
- An aging infrastructure and workforce in major markets
- Increases in new construction in growth markets
- Changes in technology that are compounded by a massive increase in data
Assets and people are aging
For the major markets, updating aging assets and adding new infrastructure requires major financial investments. In areas that have an established infrastructure, utilities are often working with systems that were installed 50 to 100 years ago. If they aren’t monitored and maintained, these older systems eventually fail. And the longer they stay in place, the less the people tasked with maintaining them are willing to mess with the systems. In the growth markets of the world, energy demand is growing, especially in Asia Pacific, which has led to the creation of new massive networks.
At the same time, climate change and the environment have become an enduring public policy priority. To make matters even more complicated, the number of skilled people who have experience working with utility environment has not grown significantly. As knowledgeable people “age out” of the workforce, experience is lost from utilities. Capturing that know-how will require a careful transfer of information to the new generation of skilled utility workers.
Technology marches on
The other major challenge utilities face may actually be their largest opportunity. It relates to evolving technology and customer demands. Because they want to save money, consumers are more interested in understanding their energy use habits. They want to monitor and take energy reducing actions anytime and anywhere. Thanks to new technology like smart meters and home energy management systems, users can manage their usage for better efficiency and reliability. Some consumers are even interested in generating their own power with wind or solar systems. As a result, utility networks are becoming more intelligent in how they monitor and control grid operation. Networks have more sophisticated sensors, advanced network analytics and the capacity for real-time network reconfiguration.
This phenomenon is helping the utility companies through two converging forces at play. First, the technology is getting easier (it has to, since it is more of a consumer self-service environment). Second, the utilities have no choice: they must transform their systems because the public is demanding it. As these two forces of easier technology and public demand converge, the utilities are able to ride the wave of transformation. The question of funding for these changes does remain, however, and some people hope that public funding will be authorized to help meet these two demands.
Creating a dynamic, automated and reliable network requires consumers, business customers, energy providers, regulators and the utility’s operations all to work together. Key elements of this transformation include smart meters, automation in the grid and its operations, enhanced work and asset management, advanced communications and the integration of distributed resources, and fast adoption of smart devices.
Not surprisingly, the amount of data coming from all these sensors and communication mediums (including mobile devices, enterprise asset management and predictive maintenance systems) is huge and increasing exponentially.
Transforming the energy and utilities industries to meet new challenges and demands requires IT technology that has the power to manage it all. IBM offers utility solutions with software, services and workload-optimized hardware. For example, the IBM enterprise asset management offering includes Maximo software running on PureSystems (System Power/V7000). It provides automation, reduced deployment time and server consolidation, which can reduce human error. Another example is the SPSS and Cognos-based analytics solution IBM provides to help with equipment condition monitoring and performance monitoring. The solution offers predictive and reporting capabilities that are optimized for IBM Power servers.
To deliver smart grid transformation and help utilities improve customer satisfaction, IBM supports key grid operation and smart metering vendors to help them run on optimized IBM servers. As utilities scale new development and test capabilities, they start embracing cloud solutions and engage with IBM to deploy them. And lastly, production environments that are required to deliver new services will run best on the highly rated, reliable systems from IBM. These systems offer the enhanced security and resiliency features that are needed for efficient operations.
Most consumers never think about it, but when it comes to delivering utility services, increasingly-capable IT systems are needed. All those IT systems you don’t see are what keep the lights on and the water running. As consumers, we demand that our utilities deliver high-quality service, increasingly reliable and greener power, 24×7 operations, and yet still keep our rates low. The next time you lose your service, think of a way IBM analytics, cloud or other IT solutions might improve it. Then, send a note to your utility or share it with others. Who knows what new solution we can come up with next?
Anna Topol works on the STG Industry CTO Leadership Team and is responsible for the Energy and Utilities Industry. She has years of experience in both technical and business development positions and has successfully led a number of R&D programs for which she received the Research Outstanding Technical Contribution Achievement Award.
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