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Utilities – the silent heroes of the power industry

Credit: Photo by Radon Shao on Unsplash

For people in many parts of the world, electricity is easy to take for granted. We flip a switch and it’s there.

But that reliability is no accident: it’s the result of round-the-clock efforts by armies of dedicated men and women. During the COVID-19 pandemic, power utilities have been working tirelessly to keep hospitals, government services, and communications systems powered up and running. I think of them as the invisible first responders, always there, behind the scenes — and I’m proud to have the chance to work with such an inspiring group of people.

The way utilities have responded to the COVID-19 crisis has revealed many things about the capabilities of the industry today:

Utilities are dedicated.

I believe the culture at utilities is among the best in the world, from the corporate level to individual employees. In the fight against COVID-19, the best and brightest have hunkered down in their operations centers, working long, hard hours to keep the grid running. Instead of going home, many teams are napping in RVs parked at their facilities, staying on-site so they can pick up the next shift and in some cases working all night to power-up new field hospitals.

Utilities are social partners.

Utilities have always been committed to the communities they were created to serve — and that really shone through with this pandemic. Some have decided to keep providing service even when customers aren’t paying, putting public safety ahead of the bottom line. Others are working in partnership with governments and customers on flexible payment plans or payment relief measures, such as waiving late fees and suspending collections activities, because they know people and businesses are going through tough times.

Utilities are fueled by reliability.

Utilities have recognized the value of building a digital platform on top of their electric grid to provide real-time monitoring and control in addition to managing critical assets. These platforms have been key to providing dependable service during the pandemic. They were built with zero compromises on redundancy, reliability, security, or disaster recovery — setting the standard for industrial private networks. They have allowed utility staff to work remotely, providing the platforms for fault detection, isolation, recovery, and other operations essential to keeping service flowing.

Opportunities to strengthen utilities post-pandemic

While COVID-19 has emphasized the inherent strengths of utilities, it has also highlighted opportunities for continuous improvement going forward:  

Stronger near-term planning and strategies

With so many people sheltering in place at home, residential demand has reached an almost sustained peak scenario — while commercial and industrial demand has plummeted.

COVID-19 has also opened the eyes of companies in all sectors to the importance of business continuity planning. For utilities, redundancy and disaster recovery plans will take on new importance and many will also need to develop replacement strategies for operations-critical systems (if they don’t already have them). Utilities will also re-evaluate the depth of the digital platform to extend deeper into mid and low-level voltage distribution sites and cover a wider range of use cases. Utilities will drive to a strategy where the digital platform almost completely mirrors the physical electrical delivery network, especially in distribution.

A focus on AI, automation and remote control

Grids are increasingly moving to distributed generation and battery storage. That configuration, combined with the kinds of rapid, unpredictable demand shifts we’ve seen with COVID-19, will require faster decision-making closer to the grid edge on how to balance supply and demand for system reliability and safety. Utilities will need to extend remote visibility/control and automated protection functions into tier 2/3 substations. Utilities will also want to introduce more practical AI and machine learning applications into the distribution grid and control centers, for further increases in grid automation.

Breaking ground on long-term projects

Looking further ahead, there are a few key areas utilities will want to explore. Cybersecurity, for example, is becoming more important every day as power grids are increasingly targeted by hackers. Utilities will want to implement multi-layered protection to secure the system from end to end.

Connectivity itself is evolving. Low-latency 4.9/5G networking has arrived and utilities have the opportunity to trial it in their operations. In most cases, this will begin with select use cases (such as using drones to inspect power lines) before it gets widely adopted for private and semi-private networks.

The pandemic has also highlighted society’s need for secure, reliable, pervasive broadband communications. Some utilities may embrace the idea of becoming “neutral hosts” for telecoms services, using their infrastructure to extend broadband to rural areas. The 5G backhaul requirement is also presenting an opportunity for utilities to implement a multi-tenant 5G backhaul platform. In many cases, utilities are examining extending their tight engagement with the city to implement “Smart City” as a Service concept.

A heartfelt “thank you” to an entire industry

As we go through this exceptional time in history, I believe it is important for all of us to pause and reflect on the critical role our utilities play.  The expression “Keeping the lights on” certainly takes on new and more purposeful meaning. I thank all utility workers everywhere for their work and dedication. Based on what I’ve seen and heard, I have full confidence in the ability of today’s power utilities to meet this challenge — and any others that may come down the road.

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