As the world comes to terms with the coronavirus pandemic, widespread and extended lockdowns have raised several challenges for electric utility companies across the globe. These span from disruptions to the field workforce to an increased need to supply reliable and quality power to their customers’ homes while they shelter-in-place. As the industry battles with ensuring 24/7 support to their business and operational systems to maintain business continuity, these challenges are not just confined to utilities alone, but also to vendors, and service providers who support them to run their operations efficiently.
According to projections published by the International Energy Agency, the global demand for electricity could fall by 5% for the current year, with some countries expected to witness a drop of up to 10%. So, while different countries are at various stages of their pandemic response, electric utilities across the globe are prioritizing essential services to address the current challenges and focus on what is absolutely necessary.
COVID-19 has affected several ongoing IT/OT projects related to upgrades, innovation, transformation projects, and many more, where a mixed group of vendors is involved. And some of these plans are disrupted because they require onsite work and collaboration that cannot be managed from home. So, while it is still early days to gauge the full economic and operational impact of the pandemic on the utility industry, let us look at some changes and challenges that could hold the key:
a. Limited field activities
Utilities are still carrying out essential and emergency onsite work but with a limited field workforce. Most non-urgent commissioning and network reinforcement operations have been delayed to reduce the health hazard on their employees and customers.
The biggest concern for utilities is the health and safety of their field force. While they prioritize essential services and look at new ways to monitor their assets, there still is a need to send field workers out for asset monitoring or repair work. In such a situation, solutions such as automated vegetation management can help utilities identify potential risks remotely, which in turn can be used to prioritize the onsite tasks for the limited field workforce.
Automation and digital transformation could be a considerable benefit for utilities, which are most affected by this situation. Remote asset monitoring using UAVs, IoT enabled services and other remote operations management solutions can reduce the time and planning for field activities drastically and also help utilities cope with unforeseen situations like COVID-19.
b. Managing remote-working and resource crunch
COVID-19 has severely impacted work for office-based operational groups, business support, IT, and project groups. Many are able to cope with the situation as they have essential services in place to collaborate and work from home or other locations. However, utilities that are behind in their digital transformation journey will be hit hard in these circumstances.
IT access, VPN, dynamic bandwidth, IT support, help desk, project tools, collaboration tools, and other day-to-day operational tools are proving to be the key enablers. If implemented correctly, these digital tools can help reduce the impact of disruption.
c. Changes to customer behavior and usage
There has been a huge shift in customer behavior and utility usage since the implementation of lockdowns. Unsurprisingly, there has been a surge in residential usage of energy. As people are staying at home, they are utilizing more power for home offices, remote schooling for kids, entertainment, and heating/cooling. On the other hand, as most offices and industrial sites are closed or operating at reduced capacity, there has been a significant drop in demand for energy.
Utilities will need to analyze the current situation and assess the impact on demand or stress on certain parts of the network, especially when it comes to outage planning.
So, what are the least affected utility companies doing right?
It is clear that utility companies who are further down the digital transformation journey are better equipped to handle such crises. With the field staff constituting about 60% of the workforce at utilities, players who have enabled mobile and digital workforce management solutions are reaping the benefits in the current situation.
Additionally, utilities that have empowered and enabled their IT vendors with necessary permissions to maintain their critical systems have seen a limited impact on BAU activities. This helps them to continue accessing the most accurate information related to assets for conducting crucial operations and taking care of the needs of the end-users.
For utility companies that are behind the curve on digital transformation, there is a real opportunity to refocus and prioritize. One key outcome will be to ensure operations and strategy have explicit goals. While the core teams continue to keep the network up and running, non-essential staff and functions should focus on digital transformation and make the best of the downtime.
Utilities that undertake progressive measures such as arranging virtual workshops to showcase specific use cases of how digital transformation can reduce impact due to challenges, stand to gain. More importantly, they can focus on models where automation, transformation, processes, systems, and operations can be harmonized.