Future-proofing utility companies: The role of data, analytics and IoT

14 February 2024 | 15 Shares

Modern utility companies face an imperative for transformation of their operations as they grapple with increasing energy demands, environmental concerns and the evolving technological expectations of consumers. There’s also a raft of legislation that needs to be observed, plus an omnipresent need to modernise infrastructure. Finally, geopolitical events, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and economic uncertainties are introducing unpredictability into energy supply chains.

Data, analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT) can be harnessed to enhance operational efficiency and deliver customers a more sustainable and responsive service. The adoption of these technologies by utility companies can also improve safety, enhance the employee experience and uncover new revenue streams.

Prioritisation is key in this situation; after all, funds are not infinite. But utilities also have the potential to be massive data gatherers, from their plant and infrastructure, their delivery methods, consumers, end-users and business operations.

Utility operations are changing rapidly.

Source: Shutterstock

In some cases, there needs to be a shift in mindset with regard to the information gathered and used by utility companies. TechHQ recently spoke to Wipro – a company in multiple partnerships with UK utilities – about the challenges and approaches their consultants and architects see daily.

The company’s Director of Digital Transformation, Sampathkumaran Hariharan, said: “The data gathered from the field is impacted by the kind of equipment and sensors that have been deployed over a long period of time. Many of the utilities have not refreshed the data-gathering mechanisms from the field. But even from an operational point of view, the information about the customer is also maintained in multiple systems.”

Sampathkumaran Hariharan. Source: LinkedIn

“The customer has not been the centre of data acquisition over a long period of time. Utilities have traditionally been an asset-centric organisation. The emphasis on being a customer-centric organisation is heavily emphasised by the regulator and the frameworks the regulator has. So there is a transitioning that is happening within the industry.”

All over the UK, water companies are becoming more responsive to their customers’ demands for less water wastage from existing pipe infrastructures. Wipro’s use of advanced machine learning algorithms helps one UK water utility monitor 600 DMAs (Digital Metered Areas) to identify those zones where leaks are a substantial issue. IoT devices monitor flow rate and pressure, and with data on the geometrical structure of the network (routes, pipe diameters, existing gate valves, etc.), software can predict pipe burst events and detect major leakage anomalies in pilot the utility’s sites.

Proactive maintenance and infrastructure replacement mean less water is lost to leaks, and critically, water supplies are better ensured to customers at home and in the workplace.

Further up the chain, the combination of OT (operational technology) and IT helps translate collated data and convert it for use by distribution network operators. This amalgamation of new technology with legacy infrastructure combines localised DCS (distributed control system) and geographically widespread SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) data to create next-generation ADMS (advanced distribution management system) solutions.  These solutions are more suited to the highly flexible approach to electricity distribution required for future generations.

Technology also elevates both the customer and employee experiences; utility personnel benefit from streamlined workflows and data-driven insights, while customers receive more personalised services and access to real-time information through smart home utility meters. Furthermore, integrating state-of-the-art technologies creates the potential for new revenue streams, such as energy efficiency consulting and water quality certification services, increasing the longevity of these critical sectors.

Data is the lifeblood of transformation in the utility, transport & distribution (T&D) and water sectors. It powers informed decision-making, bespoke services for customers and efficient resource allocation, to name just a few benefits. However, this data is next to useless if the company does not have the capability, facilitated by a robust data platform, to turn it into actionable insights.

Data-driven approaches can lead a company to embrace ‘Industry 4.0’, or the integration of IT systems with business processes. For example, say a utilities company installed advanced sensors across its power grid infrastructure; it could then apply predictive maintenance models that identify potential equipment failures before they occur. These insights could be integrated into its IT systems, allowing for automated alerts and maintenance scheduling.

Traditional operational threat (OT) practices in the utilities industry primarily focus on monitoring and managing industrial processes and equipment. However, recent technological advancements offer new benefits, particularly in the context of real-time remote sensor data. These sensors provide authorities with detailed and reliable information about damaged locations or faulty equipment, which is especially crucial during emergencies when swift action can be a matter of life and death.

The introduction of hydrogen into the UK’s power infrastructure is an area that’s being pioneered by some companies in collaboration with Wipro. It’s a critically important player in this type of research that has the ability to change the ways in which power and heat are delivered to UK homes and businesses.

Ankit Sharma. Source: LinkedIn

Ankit Sharma, Account Executive at Wipro, said: “Recently, we brought together a number of industry bodies, Ofgem, and a lot of network players, retailers, and so on, all to talk about hydrogen and how we were going to help support [its] use, how we were going to integrate, how that would work, how we use that heat in all forms in the industry.”

“But it’s really important that we look at how to integrate [hydrogen] and other renewable energy sources – wind, solar, and so on – and reduce the reliance on the carbon-intensive power generation that we currently have to support our net zero commitments.”

As IT methods are applied to the management of OT environments in enterprise, including utility sectors, further possibilities are opening up thanks to data collection and digitisation in general.

“I think what utility companies have to now look at is how we have efficient workforce management as well,” said Mr Sharma. “That means how they are geared up for the challenge from a grid maintenance perspective, and also how they are looking out for the new skills that are coming within the market. How do you upskill workforces on that?”

For utility T&D and water companies specifically, industrial IOT (IIoT) and the power of data lakes enable the shift from periodic or manual analysis to real-time monitoring of significant assets and processes, like transformers, pipelines and water treatment facilities, plus a host of other operational factors, from financing, accountancy, HR and logistics. These are just a few examples of how the incorporation of carefully chosen IT opens up more efficient and cost-effective work practices.

The future of utility companies relies on data, analytics and the IIoT. As conditions become more challenging, through growing energy demands and environmental concerns, embracing digital innovation is essential. With the integration of IT and OT and business goals that dictate technology choices, utility companies can adapt, thrive, and remain competitive in an evolving yet challenging landscape.

You can listen to the full podcast here, and check out the show notes for links and more information on Wipro’s work in the sector in the UK and abroad.

In the interim, visit Wipro’s website to find out more about its work within the utilities industry.