How to Ready Your Work Force and Operations for the Utility of the Future

by Rob Simons, TOA Technologies

From the smart grid and the way it communicates with smart meters to the home energy management (HEM) systems that control smart thermostats and smart lighting systems, utilities are being disrupted from every corner.

And with foundational shifts such as the consumerization of energy technology and the Internet of Things (IoT), there’s no sign of this disruption’s stopping short of creating a revolution in the industry. But it doesn’t have to be a negative disruption.

Utilities should address this change as an evolution, an opportunity to redefine who they are-a digital platform that connects people, business and things. Yes, this is the future.

But if you’re like most utilities, you want to understand the “how” behind the transformation.

How will you accomplish this major change, which is a complete shift in the services you offer and the customers to whom you offer them?

Although the vision is grand, the execution must be practical.

It’s up to you to evaluate the processes you have, but even more so the management of the people you have making things happen.

The Energy Consumerization Opportunity

It’s hard to believe Nest Labs, the home automation company now owned by Google, launched just four years ago.

That was really when the idea of a new utility engaging in give-and-take relationships with customers started gaining popularity.

Today, energy consumerization hasn’t been adopted en masse, but we see it with things such as rooftop solar panels and plug-in electric cars.

What has been adopted en masse, however, is customer curiosity for data on energy consumption.

According to the Gartner report “Top 10 Business Trends Impacting Utilities in 2014,” “As more granular power consumption data becomes available, consumers will expect easy and instant access to applications and analyses that help them identify opportunities to make sound investments in energy technology, save money by adjusting consumption, and validate their investments are paying off.”

In other words, the days of passive ratepayers and completely predictable energy supplies are over.

This situation poses two major challenges utilities must overcome to succeed:

1. Acknowledging consumers can be actively engaged participants in energy generation and consumption, and therefore need to be treated differently; and
2. Ensuring a stable energy supply despite that supply factors aren’t entirely in utilities’ control.

These challenges point to a new reality: Consumers will depend on future utilities only when they have to-when self-generated power sources stop working. The new utility’s value to consumers is centered on one thing: reliability.

How can utilities deliver reliability with a legacy business model that doesn’t properly address how energy will need to be provisioned tomorrow?

Start With IT, Work Force

In a December 2013 Web conference, IDC Energy Insights Predictions for 2014: Worldwide Utilities, IDC predicted that “adaptive utilities will embrace dynamic resiliency to survive the ecosystem changes,” signaling that to transform, utilities must build flexibility into the business.

IDC also predicted that in 2014, “utilities will hunt for flexibility and innovation in their operations and their business models.”

In other words, if utilities can’t be flexible in how they operate, they won’t stay relevant.

Energy providers mostly are using legacy on-premises systems, whether built internally or by a technology provider, and heavily customized to their needs.

These systems work fine for the current business model of utilities, but the argument for more flexible technology is an easy one when you look to how utilities will need to provision and bill for energy in the future. There needs to be a change.

One answer to this technology infrastructure problem is to look to cloud applications to revamp the current information technology (IT) applications within utilities.

Cloud-based applications have the potential to deliver a lower total cost of ownership and a shorter time to deploy, making them attractive for the large-scale transformation efforts utilities are pursuing. Cloud isn’t always the answer, however, especially for operational technology. Utilities must ask the right questions to determine if a business application is right for the cloud, such as:

  • Will the application need to be widely deployed throughout the business?
  • Is the application processing large data sets across multiple inputs?
  • Is the functional area being addressed with the application one that is quickly changing with business needs?
  • Could the data from that functional area be used in real time to affect other areas of the business?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, the business area likely would benefit from having a cloud application drive it.

So, if it’s cloud technology that can yield flexibility, what will power the reliability that utilities need to offer consumers to stay relevant? It’s the people, specifically the mobile work force.

The Mobile Work Force

Utility leaders are focused on managing costs while providing optimal service levels and are looking at reliability as the core area to help address these two issues. They’ve always made large capital investments in the infrastructure to prevent failures. With the introduction of renewable resources, however, it’s much more difficult for utilities to predict how these energy sources will perform. A strong infrastructure won’t be enough to deal with reliability.

According to Navigant Research, there are 1.2 million utility mobile workers worldwide, and by 2020, this number will grow to 2.4 million.

These are the people in the field who maintain or upgrade the infrastructure and manage outages.

They are critical to maintaining the reliability of the utility infrastructure and its reputation.

Consider the role of these employees in an outage as it typically happens. A team of two mobile employees is dispatched to a neighborhood block. Neighborhood residents don’t know when the service will be fixed so they continue calling the call center even as the truck is pulling onto their street. The mobile employees arrive on scene to discover that they’re missing a part. They have to call back to the home office to see where this part might be and how quickly they can find it. When they get the part two hours later, they fix the downed power line and finally contact the home office to update them that it’s fixed so customers can be alerted that power should be back on. The mobile employees then wait another 15 minutes to get their next assignment.

What’s wrong with this situation? The employees might be contributing to the reliability of the infrastructure, but they neither are being cost-effective nor can they report on findings to help future reliability modeling and assessment efforts, and they aren’t contributing to customer confidence.

Utilities long have used systems to automate how they schedule and route these mobile employees. But with improved mobile connectivity and integration with enterprise asset management, customer information systems and other systems, it’s time to rethink proper work force management and the technology that accompanies it.

Modern mobile work force management technology incorporates the latest mobile technology with real-time data analysis and reporting to access and capture information in the moment, regardless of location or connectivity. The impact of this kind of work force management includes decreased maintenance duration, increased productivity and shorter outage times, as well as an opportunity to communicate real-time updates and warnings to customers.

Let’s look at what happens in an emergency situation. A customer reports a potential gas leak. Because the mobile work force management solution can monitor the service level agreements for each job, the solution notifies dispatch that the utility must respond to this type of situation within two hours or risk fines, injury and negatively affecting its relationship with the public.

The solution quickly identifies which field teams are in the area with the skills and inventory necessary to fix the problem and automatically reroutes these mobile employees to the job. Their other jobs are re-prioritized and reassigned in the system, and the utility can solve the issue quickly before it escalates to a dangerous, costly situation. And because the information is reported from the field in real time, customers are kept safe when they are alerted to evacuate a small area for two hours while the issue is fixed.

Because the mobile work force and field service processes directly affect the reliability of the utility of the future, mobile work force management is a critical step as utilities look to become digital businesses. With solutions available to support smarter mobile work force management processes, we might see the mobile utility work force of the future sooner than expected.

Rob Simons is a vice president at TOA Technologies, a global provider of field service management solutions. In this role, Simons helps empower businesses that have mobile service teams to develop more efficient field operations.

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