Utilities are already overstretched by the day job. Between cybersecurity threats, extreme weather events and COVID-19, utilities’ resilience is being tested like never before. Meanwhile, the big stuff hasn’t fallen away, with the transition to a decarbonized future more pressing than ever.

Experience tells me technology and innovation are critical to managing these challenges. They bring the firepower to help utilities design solutions quickly, test and deploy them securely, then scale them for real value across the business. For this to be successful, though, IT and the rest of the business need to work together—and stay focused on applying technology to solve business problems.

To get practical, prioritize cloud

Want fast change and innovation at scale? put cloud at the core of your business. It’s a way to access cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning or natural language processing, experiment rapidly and securely, then scale fast.

Cloud can also directly support decarbonization—our research suggests enterprise-owned-to-cloud migrations can cut energy usage by more than 60% and carbon emissions by more than 80%.

A real-world example—and one which is top-of-mind as I am based in California: utilities know the risk of wildfires is rising, with hot and dry conditions more prevalent in California and Australia among other locations. And against that backdrop, utilities know they must take preventive action to identify damage to their infrastructure that could cause a wildfire. Drones can be a powerful tool for better visibility over a service territory. But for them to be effective, you have to be able to quickly analyze millions of images and use them to pinpoint risks.

Here’s where it gets interesting: In eight weeks, Accenture worked with a leading utility to build, then test three cloud-based machine learning models using different platforms. The goal: to see how well we could identify damaged assets that could lead to a wildfire (like a leaking transformer or chipped insulator). The models we built demonstrated the value of technology to identify damage faster and more effectively. And as a result, we are now partnering with the client to scale this as a capability across the business—de-risking, improving efficiency, and driving up worker safety.

Technology helps customers too

Let’s extend the example. As well as mitigating the risk of wildfire, utilities can proactively minimize customer impact by increasing grid resiliency. One way is to take advantage of the increasing volume of distributed energy resources (DER) on the network, and accelerate the rollout of additional DER and/or clean energy microgrids to support local communities.

This technology helps utilities speak to each component, to manage the system better as they enter wildfire events. In practice, this might mean communicating directly to microgrids or local batteries to preserve power, thereby minimizing the impact of public safety power shut-off (PSPS) events. Cloud is critical as we think about scale—according to US industry estimates, we could see almost 1.9 GW of behind the meter storage by 2024 (source: Wood Mackenzie). By using cloud, we could easily scale this type of capability as the number of DERs on the system increases.

New tech also means new partnerships

Cloud opens up a lot of options for utilities. It means you can be more agile, because you can develop and test new solutions fast, and partner more easily across your ecosystem. For instance, with cloud, you can share data more easily and securely across partners, to tackle challenges together.

And as challenges mount, we are seeing interesting partnerships emerging. For instance: between utilities and start-ups; between different utilities; and across sectors. The latter is especially interesting as we look at the opportunities in sector coupling, which has the potential to integrate gas and electric sectors, or energy and transport sectors. All with the aim of driving system optimization and decarbonization.

These partnerships will be key to accelerating innovation, shoring up utilities’ resilience and driving progress on the path to a low-carbon future.

Innovation and technology can help utilities with the big challenges. Contact me to find out more about how.

Caroline Narich

Managing Director and North America Energy Transition Services Lead

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