The Role of Automation in the Future of Energy for Utilities

by | Apr 5, 2023 | Digital Transformation

Is the utility industry ready for the future of energy? 

As a mature sector and a highly regulated vertical, its evolution has sometimes been slow. However, innovation has been becoming a more prominent topic of discussion in the utility industry. At the forefront of this conversation are concerns about pursuing digital transformation, becoming more operationally efficient, and adopting Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). 

There are challenges to moving utilities forward and modernizing the industry. Technology will be the key factor in the future of energy utility companies with automation playing a pivotal role. 

What’s Driving Change in the Utility Market?

Several factors shape the future of energy, both internally and externally. The utility industry itself is much more complex now from a technology perspective. Companies have adopted many tools in pursuit of digital transformation, efficiency, and data-driven decision-making. The sector has been focusing resources on these areas because the utility framework desperately needs modernization. 

Even though there has been investment in these initiatives and the industry is expanding, it still has to manage budgets wisely while dealing with labor challenges. 

Additional trends that are fueling change include:

  • Decentralization of grids: This allows energy production to occur closer to consumption. It reduces transmission and distribution costs. Centralization has been the norm for decades, but the need to add renewables to the grids makes decentralization favorable. 
  • Adding renewable energy to the framework: The potential for renewables is broad and robust, but optimization is necessary. This process requires connecting to smart grids.
  • Grid modernization: Utilities in the United States implemented 115 million smart electricity meters between 2000 and 2021. The next wave of the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is now a priority. The next generation has faster processors, more memory, modular communication features, and longer-lasting batteries. 
  • Electric vehicle (EV) growth: Utilities are accelerating efforts around EVs as they become more popular and prevalent. The inevitable increase in EVs plugging in will require significant planning and programs.  

The utility industry has a long list of urgent needs, which come with unique problems and opportunities. One thing they’ve been using to overcome these is automation. Many utility companies have adopted automation in some way, but scaling it has been elusive. Let’s look at the progress of automation in utilities, where the gaps are, and what’s next. 

How Automation Can Drive the Future of Energy for the Utilities Industry 

Applying automation within your utility company typically starts with Robotic Process Automation (RPA). It’s the foundation of any automation program. Digital robots can easily assume rules-based, repetitive tasks, which can streamline workflows. RPA has been a support tool across utility enterprises, supporting IT, accounting, operations, customer service, and more. 

RPA Uses Cases for Utility Companies

  • Verifying meter readings
  • Facilitating customer billing (extracting data from sensors, validating data, and inputting on the statement)
  • Doing pricing calculations and order entry
  • Sending notifications related to time-sensitive contract renewals
  • Updating inventory records
  • Providing customers self-service options for asking common questions, resetting passwords, and setting up accounts

Many utility companies value RPA, but scaling it has been difficult. According to a 2019 study by Capgemini, only 17 percent of organizations they surveyed reported that they had accomplished RPA at scale. Scaling is a distinct category in automation. It applies to the entire enterprise, not departments or functions. You also have to optimize the process before you automate and then scale. 

Scaling automation comes with many benefits, but there’s work to do. Firm goals and direction are necessary, as are a clear understanding of system dependencies, high data quality, and more. Once you clear these hurdles, you can scale your automation program, beginning with RPA. To gain traction and prepare for future success, you’ll need to leverage and scale Intelligent Process Automation (IPA).

IPA opens up an array of automation possibilities for the utility industry. What is the potential for IPA in the utility sector? Experts estimate it could save the industry $237-$813 billion when scaled. The value derived from IPA involves even more than cost savings; organizations report seeing positive impacts on customer satisfaction, quicker access to customer insights and data, faster time to market in launching new products, and reduced customer churn.

These are the top use cases for IPA in the industry that will drive its future forward.

IPA Use Cases for Utility Companies 

Utility companies have many opportunities to leverage IPA to deliver on components of operational efficiency and digital transformation, including:

  • Aggregating and standardizing data from IoT devices and other systems (RPA is the starting point for this automation, and IPA has the analysis capability) 
  • Defending against cyberthreats with advanced monitoring and identification abilities
  • Connecting new systems to old ones to improve infrastructure and interoperability
  • More accurately forecasting energy usage and managing demand with algorithms to measure parameters such as grid load, electricity consumption and generation, weather forecasts, and electricity prices
  • Detecting failures in the grid 
  • Personalizing energy usage to meet the demand of consumers wanting more information and control over their carbon footprint.
  • Improving safety through data collection from sensors for faster response to operational issues

These Artificial Intelligence-driven automations impact every aspect of a utility company. Scaling IPA to involve the entire enterprise is difficult, just as it is for RPA. Only 15 percent of surveyed companies are able to do so, according to the same Capgemini study. Scalable automation links to realizing benefits and moving an organization toward its digital transformation goals.

The steps to take to elevate to scale involve:

  • Defining the specific goals of scaled IPA
  • Evaluating and choosing IPA use cases that will yield the most value
  • Investing in integrating and optimizing processes for scaled automation
  • Building and maintaining an agile Center of Excellence (CoE)
  • Testing, measuring, and improving continually

The benefits are tremendous when you achieve scaled automation for utilities with RPA and IPA.

Benefits of Automation in the Utility Sector

The future of energy has many opportunities to automate and innovate. When you adopt automation and use it strategically across your business, the benefits are vast and drive operational efficiency. These benefits include:

  • Reimagining workflows with automation: Digital robots assume repetitive, rules-based tasks, enabling humans to be more productive, focus on higher-level initiatives, and enjoy more meaningful work.
  • Reducing costs and driving out waste: Automation offers real-time asset management so you can proactively maintain them. Additionally, you can decrease field response time during emergencies when automation triggers an immediate response. You can also reduce expenses with automation by tackling waste in processes. You’ll first optimize them and then apply automation. As a result, you can decrease costly errors, operate more efficiently, and save time.
  • Acting on real-time data: Automation enables real-time access to data and its insights. You can then take these learnings and make better decisions.
  • Improving customer experiences: Your customers’ experiences are critical to how they perceive you. Providing automation tools for self-service and other needs creates more satisfaction. In fact, 50 percent of energy and utility executives surveyed by Capgemini stated that automation improves customer satisfaction.
  • Gaining a competitive edge: If you’re running more efficiently, using resources appropriately, and monitoring production, you’ll have an advantage over others still lagging on digital transformation and modernization.

Power Your Utility Company’s Future with Automation

The utility industry has much to gain from automation. It can cross all your lines of business, from field monitoring to accounting to general operations. In implementing automation, your future gets the fuel it needs to keep growing and providing more meaningful work for your most valuable assets—your people.

Learn more about automation and meaningful work by reading How Automation Plays a Key Role in Meaningful Work.

How Automation Plays a Key Role in Meaningful Work

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