How Content Services Are Enabling the Digital Transformation of Electric Utilities
Electric utilities in the United States are a major source of CO2 – they created 1.55 billion metric tons of it in 2020. This sector vies only with transportation in producing the most pollution on the planet. And according to the US Energy Information Agency, consumption is expected to grow by 50% by the year 2050.
To get greener, electric utilities must digitally transform. This can’t happen overnight. However, even as digitization is phased in, more carbon-killing innovation can occur via force-multiplying tech such as Cloud, AI, and IoT. As with other sectors, a rising tide of information chaos threatens the promise of big data and the opportunity to innovate. These information management challenges could be resolved through the utilization of content services, generating significant opportunities for content services providers.
The Slow Transition to Green Energy
Today, electric utilities no longer get electricity exclusively from power plants burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas; they’re also getting an increasing amount of power from green sources like wind turbines, solar arrays, and hydroelectric generators.
Of course, “prosumers” are generating a portion or all of their own electricity from renewable sources like rooftop solar panels and storing it locally with high-capacity batteries. This trend towards decentralized power production is turning prosumers into competitors of electric utilities.
Whatever the source, power must be transmitted over an aging grid that’s already susceptible to extreme weather from climate change (e.g., last year’s Texas blackout) and cyberattacks by bad actors (e.g., last year’s ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline). President Biden proposed his infrastructure bill that would dedicate $100 billion to modernize the grid. That bill did not pass.
Therefore, to get electric utilities to green, political change as well as across-the-board technology innovation must happen. For their part, electric utilities must change their company culture. Ever since Edison invented the lightbulb to illuminate the American night, power providers have been the ones to keep it lit. Whereas reliability has been electric utilities’ chief charge for almost 100 years, climate change demands that they become less risk-averse, conservative, and slow-to-change – and innovate with the extreme urgency required to head off planet death.
As a result, electric utilities are in radical flux because they are phasing in green power from both ends of their source-to-serve value chains – from power plants on the one hand and customers on the other.
Their task now is to leverage the ever-compounding big data from power plants and “prosumers” (consumers who generate their own green power) to achieve more cost-efficient operations and more imaginative customer service. To accomplish both, they must transform into data-driven ecosystems that are 3D – Digitized, Decarbonized, and Decentralized. In struggling to meet those challenges, they’re creating momentous opportunities for intelligent IT vendors.
AI is disrupting power as we know it. It’s automating tasks within and around electric utilities, so employees work better and cleaner and customers are empowered to be more cost-efficient and eco-friendly. As it now comes embedded – and therefore distributed --in data-dependent devices, apps, processes, and platforms, it’s also become democratized – workers don’t need data scientists in order to exploit its value. Data, of course, is the lifeblood of AI, so the electric utility data glut from power plants upstream and customers downstream can be a benefit, not a detriment, to operations, sales, and service. The more data an AI system has to analyze, the more actionable insights it can recommend.
What’s more, AI is increasingly performing those actions autonomously. Electric utility operations, especially low- or no-skill ones, will evolve from those now human-driven to future human/machine ones that are machine-driven. Both employees and customers will interact via a software-first interface with an electric utility interprise that functions as much like a hypertrophied chatbot as an affiliation of people. (Note: Interprise is a term used to identify the infrastructure, employees, and customers of an enterprise.)
AI is a holistic tech in that it creates value throughout the interprise by cutting cost, improving productivity, enhancing customer service, and speeding payback. Because it expedites strategic decision-making, it improves an electric utility’s agility.
With an AI-led corporate strategy, electric utilities can progress from a conservative culture to one of experimentation and innovation with the goal of becoming digitally transformed, source-to-serve, data-driven ecosystems. Data is useful only when it’s the right data provided when and where the right worker or customer needs it. By extrapolating insight from information, AI will parse the signal from the noise and put electric utilities on the path to becoming future-fit.
Electricity is now increasingly decentralized and therefore bi-directional -- it used to be generated solely from larger centralized power plants, but now it’s also generated from smaller distributed energy resources (DER) like solar, wind, hydro, and biomass linked from homes and businesses to the distribution system on or near them and run on small-scale microgrids that operate autonomously.
Decentralization then is a key driver transforming energy. It cedes more leverage to the customer, provides cheaper energy, and reduces pollution from fossil fuel sources. With decentralization, however, supply can be uncertain as, for instance, wind and solar require the right weather conditions to generate power.
This increasing “disintermediation” of prosumers from the electric utility can also complicate load balancing. Unlike, say, water, electricity can’t be stored in very large quantities, so it must be used the instant it’s generated – too much supply and the grid burns out; too little and there’s a power outage. Having multiple fossil and green power sources can also complicate energy management.
Electric activity is monitored by IoT sensors on field assets like transformers and by smart meters on houses and businesses. Sensors let electric utilities remotely monitor and manage field assets, so they can detect degraded operations and proactively service them. Sensors on power lines measure electrical load to help ensure the grid is balanced.
“Smart meters” at customer locations are linked to the electric utility and monitor and record customer consumption data so it can bill customers without the need for meter readers. These meters also let electric utilities monetize value-added services like reporting consumption to customers so they can more economically manage and conserve it. They also alert the electric utility if there’s a power outage in the area so it can dispatch crews quickly to do repairs. Electric utilities used to rely on customers calling in power outages, so they were reactive. Smart meters providing instant data monitoring make them proactive.
Much more data from millions of devices will give electric utilities' AI systems bigger data sets on which to perform predictive and other analyses.
Electric utilities can get cheaper virtual infrastructure, platforms, and apps by migrating to the cloud. Of course, they also take advantage of standard cloud capabilities such as geographic scalability; elastic computing resources; flexibility, so integrating new functionality is easy; high-performance generally by exploiting shared virtual resources and, more specifically, as they now support high-performance computing (HPC) needed for the demanding workloads of IoT and cybersecurity; and, finally, affordability with its pay-per-use cost model.
Gartner predicts that by 2025 there will be a 40% increase in hybrid cloud deployment. A hybrid cloud better supports the hybrid workspace of the future. Electric utilities are not immune from this trend. They support collaboration and innovation by distributed users like sales, service, and marketing reps as well as customers in hybrid work environments. These, however, aren’t set-it-and-forget-it solutions. They can, on the one hand, automatically and dynamically allocate bandwidth for more at peak-use times and less at off-peak ones, but they also demand management of the data glut they enable.
A hosted cloud is probably best for electric utilities as it offers must-have security and compliance for their highly regulated environments.
Low fruit cloud solutions for electric utilities, however, tend to be customer service ones leveraging mobile CRM. While customer service has become increasingly automated, it’s also become increasingly frustrating with less human touch, and customers are leaving businesses in record numbers when it’s done poorly.
Both customers and service reps are now largely deskless, so with mobile CRM real-time, anywhere, anytime support is possible. Reps, therefore, can be more responsive and, because they can also access data like leads and files relevant to their job as well as click-to-call into meetings, they are more productive too.
The cloud also allows for operations like net metering and load shedding. Sometimes DER creates more power than a customer can use, so with net metering, customers store it on the grid and have it credited back to them when they need it. With load shedding, customers’ thermostats automatically shed power for low-priority uses, so high-priority ones access more power if they need it.
As they require little customization, discrete services common to electric utilities, like Human Resources and Accounts Payable, are SaaS with remote capabilities for anytime/anywhere interaction. With SaaS, of course, electric utilities offload deployment, management, and troubleshooting to the provider and eliminate most capital expenses because they rent the services.
There are north of 1,400 SaaS solutions for the energy market, so SaaS is usually part of the ante electric utilities put up to improve operations and customer service with energy-as-a-service solutions unique to electric utilities. They deploy SaaS in concert with AI for various smart data management activities such as meter data management, building data management, home data management, and field asset management. The last even provides photos and text notes about field equipment like poles and transformers, so, say, by comparing photos before and after a storm, maintenance crews can remotely assess the damage.
SaaS to improve operations includes monitoring internal machine data to perform predictive maintenance, monitoring power generation in real-time, monitoring the financial and physical performance of solar and wind assets, doing e-billing and auditing and e-chargebacks and rebilling, doing expense management, performing anywhere/anytime/any source energy analytics, analyzing automation and control data, streamlining, standardizing and tracking processes to achieve regulatory compliance, benchmarking so electric utilities can do cost comparisons with other energy providers in relevant markets.
Smaller electric utilities especially benefit from SaaS as services are easy to deploy at affordable prices. Electric utilities can perform a number of virtual activities via a mobile interface: build a digital inventory of assets like transformers and meters accompanied by images, status, details, and notes for each asset; do inspections and edit and update asset data after inspections; and monitor microgrids for agile response to power outages and other unforeseeable events.
Many of these solutions come pre-built for the energy market but also for use cases common across markets like sales. There are even SaaS services for managing SaaS energy services and for sharing data between SaaS services.
The electric vehicle (EV) revolution has also spawned related SaaS services that, for instance, let electric utilities manage commercial charging stations.
In general, electric utilities oversupply electricity to guarantee reliability, especially in industrial scenarios. With the smart management afforded by energy-as-a-service solutions, electric utilities supply power-as-needed and otherwise optimize efficiency across the interprise to thereby cut emissions.
Just about any tech related to electric utilities can be cloud- or SaaS-enabled, so it’s not overstating the point to say everything-is-a-service for electric utilities.
With the volume, variety, and velocity of big data constantly coursing through electric utilities from all points on the value chain, employees can waste a day a week looking for the right data at the right time for the right person. Good luck if it’s on paper. Even if it’s in digital form, its taxonomy will actually be the sum of several taxonomies for different apps accessible only by proprietary interfaces. What’s more, those taxonomies will be incomplete – conventional search does not index unstructured text, audio, visual, and images.
More than 90% of data and documents in electric utilities is dark – inaccessible – or dumb – useless. And it gets darker and dumber by the hour. With conventional search, workers must use keyword searches from multiple interfaces for different data sets. So even then, searching can be an onerous process producing mediocre results.
Intelligent search supercharges findability. As with old school search, it periodically web crawls to index ever bigger collections of documents for inclusion as content in content management systems and operational database management systems, no matter the file format or, sometimes, the language, and with improved ease by customized access from enterprise apps like CRM common to electric utilities. Employees and customers access the indexed information throughout the interprise via a centralized interface using natural language processing (NLP) queries. With NLP, users can refine searches with evermore exact language strings, not keywords, to be progressively more precise.
What are called insight engines enhance the power of NLP with AI and semantic search to describe, organize, analyze and then, using relevancy methods, enrich data sets. Enrichment puts data in context by refining it per previous queries and supplementing it with content related to the NL search terms. The engine then extrapolates from that increasingly better context the searcher’s intent. Discovering customer intent is obviously useful for electric utility customer service reps – it helps them provide more personalized service.
Machine learning (ML) renders data sets accessible to machines as well as humans, so, for instance, maintenance crews can search maintenance logs in field assets and do repairs proactively. Cognibots go a step further with natural language understanding (NLU) by answering questions posed by crews and suggesting possible repairs.
Importantly, intelligent search can scale to accommodate electric utilities' ever-increasing data. All this can be done, moreover, without the need for data scientists.
With so much dark data, electric utilities don’t know what they don’t know. Intelligent search can give them bigger and better data sets on which to base services that neither they nor their customers otherwise could not imagine.
Because electric utilities have so many physical assets like internal machinery, field equipment, and power lines, leveraging data analytics to monitor and optimize asset performance, even by a small percentage, generates great savings. Assets stream data in tiny increments of time, so electric utilities can monitor performance in near-real-time to constantly tool performance. By responding quickly, they can also do predictive maintenance and proactive customer service.
Because power from green sources like wind and solar is intermittent, depending on the weather, electric utilities pull data from weather systems to prepare for extreme weather. They also penetrate behind-the-meter to monitor and measure data from individual devices.
With granular visibility into their data, electric utilities offer many value-added services leveraging consumption monitoring. For instance, by educating a customer about how much more money he’s paying for his excessive AC use at peak summer hours, the electric utility can motivate him to reduce use at peak times. Peak time electricity is more expensive, so conserving it cuts customer costs and helps the electric utility better manage its power provision. Granular visibility into data permits better analysis, so electric utilities can track line-item use and spend to drive out cost.
Electric utilities can also segment subgroups of their total customer population according to usage preferences, so they can market and sell them services that generate additional revenues because they map so well to customer needs.
With data analytics in the cloud, electric utilities handle that immense data load because the cloud provides unprecedented power from virtual interconnected systems and compute resources.
Records and Information Management
As electric utilities are heavily regulated, to comply, they must manage loads of records. Most electric utility records must be archived for 15 to 20 years and some inspection and maintenance ones for the life of the electric utility. Records such as financial statements, capital project information, budgets, asset optimization, emissions impact statements, power purchase agreement contracts, and customer data must be indexed, kept, shared, stored, and disposed of according to retention policies negotiated with government entities like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
If electric utilities dispose of records too early, they get fined for noncompliance; if they dispose of them too late, they incur legal consequences. Records and Information Management (RIM) products use to help them achieve regulatory compliance and avoid legal exposure. They made records available for actions like audits by regulators, reporting to investors in an investor owned utility, and so on.
Electric utility documents and records are too numerous to list, but some examples include:
- Power purchase agreements must be managed for the contract’s duration.
- Price rate reports must prove compliance with price regulations to be fair to customers.
- Legal documents must be available for litigation support.
- Sustainability records must prove compliance with environmental standards and regulations.
- Photos from drones document field equipment damage after storms.
All that said, the imperative to digitally transform has expanded, improved, and consolidated RIM capabilities into Content Services. These do everything RIM does at all stages of the document lifecycle but are enhanced largely by the techs mentioned here as well as others, but especially by AI and cloud.
5G will be one of the others because it affords high bandwidth at the grid core and low latency at its edge, so it will enhance Content Services in ways yet to be imagined. It will obviously enable more responsive, deskless customer service as well as augmented interprise collaboration with audio and video. Autonomous Electric Vehicles (AEV) will certainly capitalize on 5G. They maneuver by AI, based on ubiquitous and instantaneous data transmitted from vehicle sensors and cameras to the grid edge and then to the cloud and back to the vehicle. Electric utilities will be challenged to power all those EV and AEV chargers. 5G is just becoming really viable because the big telecoms that have 5G capabilities are only now figuring out how to sell it without cannibalizing their 4G services. Some are doing this better than others, so 5G throughput differs according to the provider.
With RIM practices, users created mostly document vaults accessible within the enterprise. Content Services made them more dynamic. Customers and employees, especially younger ones, demanded capabilities at work that personalized services like Netflix gave them at home. Content Services delivered -- with tools that afforded on-demand multiform content anytime from anywhere and from any device.
Content Services with Robotic Process Automation
Intelligent capture with Robotic Process Automation (RPA) digitally transforms documents at the start of the document lifecycle. Electric utilities can scan paper or electronically ingest structured and unstructured digital documents from multiple applications, OCR them so AI bots can then extract data from OCR, login to the target legacy app like, say, ERP, and populate the appropriate different document forms, say invoices or contracts, auto-classify them, convert paper invoices to PDFs and ingest electronic contracts in their formats, extract data by bots from both invoices and contracts, then pass the converted data and PDFs in the same flow to ERP for the invoices and to document management (DM) for the contracts.
Regulators are working with electric utilities and intelligent information tech vendors to make compliance easier so as to more quickly achieve tolerable sustainability. RPA does it as well by creating audit trails for all activities involved in automating this process. The two forces help electric utilities comply with audits and do other compliance activities to avoid fines and suits.
Needless to say, RPA is vastly more economical and productive than having employees read, extract, file, reconcile and do data entry for high volumes of paper.
The most successful RPA projects tend to scan paper and accelerate the resulting images through an established production process with few exceptions like accounts payable. These departmental solutions cut costs and improve productivity, but risk being shortsighted if they don’t link with related processes that cross departments and have broader enterprise impact. Check out AIIM's “Enhancing Your RPA Implementation With Intelligent Information” eBook for more on that.
Electric utilities can deploy RPA on-prem, in the cloud, and as SaaS. If the electric utility's ambition is merely tactical, a SaaS RPA solution is ideal as providers deploy it in a department post haste with little customization, and companies save on capital expenses with its rental cost model.
Content Services with Repository-Neutral Access and Integration
Over the years, electric utility departments have often adopted redundant Enterprise Content Management (ECM), RM, and DM systems for different projects in different departments. Connecting and consolidating the content from their disparate repositories is a major concern for users. By implementing an intelligent metadata layer between a common mobile user interface and disparate repositories, electric utilities create a repository-neutral tier that enables seamless, interprise access.
This allows cross-repository penetration throughout the electric utility, which breaks down data silos and makes more data usable for value-added services.
Content Services with Cloud-Based Business Process Management
A sizable electric utility community is comprised of hundreds of thousands of employees and customers distributed in space and time and generating a massive amount of multiform content over a mashup of hundreds of manual and automated processes. The same monolithic legacy infrastructure that nets electric utilities economies of scale for better returns despite regulated rates is retarding their march to agility. Much of their data is redundant, obsolete, or temporary (ROT), and many processes span only single legacy apps like ERP and others unique to electric utility apps such as Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) for controlling machinery and Asset Management for controlling field equipment.
Most apps are installed and islanded along business and IT lines. Upgrades and outsourcing have siloed their content and further fragmented their processes. With so much data and process debt, electric utilities end up expending most of their financial and IT resources on maintaining legacy infrastructure and the information in it instead of allocating them to new solutions that generate real business value. In a risk-averse culture, though, this is often the go-to C-level thinking.
To scale, unify and streamline those processes across the interprise requires Cloud-based Business Process Management (BPM). Electric utilities can use it to discover, model, automate, monitor, and continually improve shadow, manual and automated business processes. Doing so means optimizing high-business-value ones, deprioritizing low-value ones, consolidating dead-end ones, and retiring redundant or low-use ones. Because it’s in the cloud, the BPM solution requires little up-front capital, the provider sets up, maintains, and troubleshoots it, its pay-for-use cost model makes it affordable, and it scales as needed for interprise impact as the electric utility adds modernizing apps. Improving processes exposes data debt, so electric utilities can save on storage by purging ROT data and leveraging previously dark data for new services. This lets them collaborate anytime/anywhere over frictionless processes linking legacy and differentiating apps.
Content Services With Collaboration
Collaboration is key for a high-performing electric utility. According to a 2019 study from The Institute for Corporate Productivity, companies using collaboration systems are five times more likely to have highly productive teams. Collaborating around a compelling common purpose – say, that of a socially responsible brand – further generates productivity.
With their source-to-serve ecosystems, electric utilities have captive communities into which they can sell value-added services. Due to customer demand for more convenient virtual ones, electric utilities have spun out mostly customer-facing services, from e-metering and e-billing to virtual support from call centers. More recently, they’ve diversified into granular consumption tracking – some show customers which appliance is using how much power; others for prosumers show, say, how much solar they’re using.
A services business model is different from electric utilities' legacy commodity one of selling power per KW. Electric utilities are late to realize that all they have to sell is the voluminous data with which smart devices are enriching their ecosystems. By slicing and dicing and packaging it so it’s cyber-cool, they’ve productized data-driven services to sell into their ecosystem community.
This is a brave new world for electric utilities that have been regulated to operate in their respective regions more like vertically-integrated monopolies than market-driven competitors. It’s also a bit ironic – that power companies are late to embrace a key theme of the information age: data is power. Nonetheless, when they leverage their data now, it improves the entire interprise.
Electric utilities that restructure collaboration tech and processes to map to customers’ journeys will have an advantage in a hybrid workplace. Spinning out customer-facing services is the only way electric utilities can win back the spend of prosumers who have adopted their own green power. Prosumers now interact with electric utilities mostly cell phone-to-cell phone. To sign up for solar power tracking, for instance, a prosumer emails sales from her cell phone, gets a chatbot, which eventually directs her to an e-commerce process where she inputs her credit card data, which withdraws funds from her bank to execute the sale then sends a receipt to her email address.
Outlining a process that is so common now is to risk cliché, except for the fact that an electric utility can build touchpoints within that process and that extend it so reps can build customer intimacy by servicing, educating, polling, and so forth during the customer’s journey to eventually upsell the customer to a service. The prosumer goes through a simplified automated process that cuts out the salesperson until later in the process when it lets the rep do more profitable customer engagement services over time.
Content Services With Workflow
Some electric utilities opt to also conserve operation costs by deploying workflow to optimize collaboration. For instance, to manually initiate, schedule, and execute a planned outage can involve power plant managers, commercial operators, outage coordinators, reliability coordinators, asset managers, and contract administrators doing notification and approval at different points in the process. They collaborate from their fixed locations by email, phone, and for paper forms by inner-office routing. This process is blind to participants, liable to errors, and rife with obvious inefficiencies due to many time-consuming multi-mode and multi-way inputs.
Mobile workflow makes the process visible to stakeholders via mobile devices from anywhere at any time, alerts them when work items land in their inboxes, speeds routing, prevents manual mistakes, and eliminates wasted man-hours. This process happens many times a year and done manually may take days. Workflow can cut process time in half for great savings.
This example points up a key fact: electric utility operations involve many documents, so operations are essentially docu-centric. By contrast, customer service involves one document – the bill – so it’s essentially data-centric. It behooves intelligent information tech vendors, and especially SIs, to attend to this distinction.
Content Services With Smart Augmented Meeting Tech
Smart augmented meeting tech will revolutionize collaboration. Enhanced with at least AI and virtual reality (VR), it will let geographically dispersed employees interact with each other and with customers in virtual rooms and, if they can’t appear onscreen, rigged with body sensors, as avatars. Rooms will have persistent whiteboards to which participants can add virtual sticky notes and annotations, and AI will do live translation and transcription of multiple languages. Deployed in hybrid workspaces, it will improve employee productivity and be ideal for customer support.
Cross-app and cross-department processes will improve access to heretofore dark or useless data across departments throughout the interprise. With better access to data and content, more unified processes, not to mention library services like version control and co-authoring via document management (DM), electric utilities can deliver a greener future.
The Path to Electricity as a Smart Experience
Though electric utilities are creating more data services for customers, what they’re really selling is a cumulative effect -- electricity as a “smart” experience. If they don’t understand this, they soon should. A dumb electric utility can’t provide a smart experience.
Employees are consumers of content in the workplace, so like customers they merit a Netflix-like experience – and younger ones expect it. Boomers have left the building – millennials are at the gates. If electric utilities want to hire tech-savvy young people, they better appeal to their green ideals by reducing their carbon footprint and providing a smart work environment with cool tools to captivate them with an inspiring experience.
A new experience, though, is like new wine – it can’t be stored in old wineskins. Electric utilities must reimagine themselves.
And do so with a common mandate -- electrify everything.
Intelligent information products have a big role to play here. Leveraging them, electric utilities cut operation costs, better execute over streamlined processes, improve customer engagement, and fuel interprise innovation.
The technology for going green is here. The question then comes down to culture: Do utilities have the will to change – and change fast enough?
Only the planet will tell.
About John Harney
John Harney is President of SaaSWatch, a SaaS consultancy and IT journalism service where he helps SaaS providers define target markets, ensure barriers to entry, develop cost models, partner for complementary technology, refine use cases and scale fast. He also promotes them by creating materials for websites and editorial for placement in appropriate print and electronic venues. He also reports on SaaS business strategies, technology and use cases in a number of venues. John is a 30-year veteran IT reporter and now covers IT issues across all markets. He is particularly focused on technologies related to Cloud, SaaS, AI and Content Services. He authored one of the first books on cloud computing, has run three magazines focused on content services and has been a KM columnist for Knowledge Management magazine and a SaaS columnist for eDoc, AIIM’s former magazine, which in the magazine’s previous incarnation he ran in the mid-90s. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa in English Literature from Randolph-Macon College, went on to do graduate work in Literature and Writing at the University of Virginia then graduated from Columbia University with an MFA in Writing. Later he earned a degree in Corporate Training from Georgetown University. He is especially interested in IT and its applications that drive the greening of the planet. Before becoming involved in IT, John was an adjunct professor and corporate trainer. You can reach him at 240.877.5019 and firstname.lastname@example.org.