Driving operational excellence through automation in the utilities sector

utilities sector

At a time when energy commodity prices are at all-time lows, operational excellence has become a necessity for utilities to remain competitive. Tight profit margins combined with recent significant shifts in power system supply and demand fundamentals have increased the urgency for utilities to invest in automation with an aim to achieving operational excellence. This includes performance metrics such as limited downtime, increased output and higher efficiencies of their assets.

Historically, a correlation has existed between crude oil and natural gas prices. That correlation also trickles down into power prices, as a significant amount of power generation in the United States and globally comes from natural gas generation (approximately 40 percent and 25 percent, respectively). The expectation is that natural gas and other existing fossil fuel units will need to implement technologies that enable strategic asset performance management measures and automated operations, as these types of generating plants still comprise much of the mid-merit units that are consistently dispatched and still make up the core of many regional supply stacks.

In addition to traditional fossil fuel units, owners and operators of renewable generation systems are prime candidates for investing in technologies that will provide the foundation for automation in their operations. Renewables — in particular, wind and solar — represent the fastest growing generation sources globally. The intermittent nature of both wind and solar generation has put pressure on utilities and power producers to fully optimize their entire fleet assets and adjust to the ever-changing market dynamics in the power sector.

Building the foundation for automated operations and asset optimization will be key for utilities in the quest for operational excellence. Technologies that can successfully leverage operational data will enable a utility’s assets to perform at their best. Utilities are moving away from scheduled maintenance to condition-based maintenance by leveraging enormous amounts of operational data. Algorithms utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) can create a strategic approach to asset management that can support preventative, predictive and prescriptive maintenance practices. Collecting and analyzing historical and real-time operational data can help utilities prevent failures and adjust to operational or market conditions in efforts to eliminate past asset failures. Connected assets with the ability to effectively utilize edge and cloud computing can ensure that utilities are running flexible and agile operations while continuously learning from data patterns and trends that will improve their overall operational performance in the long run, in addition to extending the life cycles of their assets.

As utilities and power producers strive for operational excellence, another large aspect of successful asset operations is the deployment of advanced mobile workforce management or field services applications. Mobility via smartphones, tablets and laptops can enable access to critical operational data while working in the field, which can save time and costs while improving the safety and efficiency of utility maintenance crews and technicians. Up and coming mobility technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will allow remote workers off a maintenance site to assist, collaborate with, and guide personnel in the field when they are working on assets. The use of cloud, internet of things (IoT) data and advanced analytics can allow field workers access to critical operational data remotely, which will provide efficiency, save on labor costs and improve safety for technicians in the field. In addition, advanced mobile workforce management applications can modernize work orders, planning and scheduling, which will improve overall process execution around asset management and operations.

In summary, we expect investments in technologies that enable automation in operations will increase to ensure that utilities’ assets and field technicians are operating efficiently while also providing an environment for safe and reliable operations. The automation of operations and taking advantage of connected assets have proven to increase efficiencies, lower labor costs and extend the life cycle of a utility’s assets. Digitizing assets and performing rigorous analytics on historical and real-time operational data can build resiliency in a utility’s operations and help optimize assets — which will be essential for utilities that are in pursuit of operational excellence.

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