It’s the decade of the Distribution System Operator (DSO) and time is of the essence. The utility sector is one of the last industries to digitalise its operations. Distribution grids face a seemingly impossible journey to decarbonise, decentralise, and digitalise. And the climate-change clock is ticking. It takes time to mature operations based on relevant, contextualised data and streamlined processes that place the end-customer in the centre. So, when should DSOs jump on board the digitalisation train?

Benefits of Digitalisation for Utilities

Many industries are already benefiting from digitalisation. For example, during the COVID pandemic, look at the great quality of some home delivery services; you can track your package in real-time and know in advance when to expect the delivery during the day. Your sender is also aware of the delivery of that package and can act on it: send a survey form at the right moment, offer new services thanks to trust—efficiencies, coupled with an excellent end-user experience.

Once an industry has mastered digitalised operations, like retail, you can graduate to the next level by leveraging the power of data. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here because utilities have barely begun the digitalisation journey. Most are still contemplating which ticket they need to buy. It’s curious to think that an infrastructure that we all depend on to serve our basic needs, which fuels all the other sectors’ growth by providing electricity, is one of the last to jump on the digitalisation train.

Utilities: The Backbone of the Green Economy

To co-create a brighter and more sustainable future economy that is green, electrified, and decarbonised, we need a solid backbone that can enable it. A future-proof infrastructure can accelerate the growth of the green economy rather than slow it down.

Yet, today, the grid operators are facing a bottleneck; their train has hardly left the station. The jam has a negative impact on the rest of the industry’s stakeholders, as it slows down the energy transition for everyone. It would make more sense if the DSOs were the first to move forward, because it would enable the rest of the passengers in the other industries to ride aboard a stable and reliable network of energy.

Data Intelligence: A DSO’s Best Friend

Empowering grid operators to improve operational processes, relieve pressure from electrification, increase decision-making speed and confidence, that’s how data intelligence can help DSOs take control of the energy transition. Data intelligence can help DSOs by:

  • Providing metrics about renewables that help DSOs understand how the patterns change in customer behaviour and renewables penetration levels.
  • Sharing insights on asset usage and distribution configuration, limiting network reinforcement costs, and accommodating a maximum amount of renewable energy and electrification energy consumption.
  • Reducing the risk of safety-critical activities, such as asset maintenance and field operations.

How Long Is the Journey to Making Your Grid Smarter?

Two extremes are observed in the industry:

  • While some might think that a digitalisation initiative takes months and years to yield first results because of their peers’ bad experience with a poor partner.
  • Others might believe wonders can be achieved with a snap of the fingers.

The reality is somewhere in-between, with early results able to yield value for operations in a few weeks or months. It will depend on the establishment of some key success factors for the data initiative.

Keep in mind the holy grail of the journey, predictive intelligence. It requires algorithms to learn from observed data and metrics on your network. In the MIT Press book Deep Learning, Ian Goodfellow suggests that a supervised deep-learning algorithm will achieve acceptable performance with around 5,000 labelled examples per category. On a problematic with three specific events a day, this means it can take up to five years for the analytics to perform at high reliability. So once the problem you want to solve or the opportunity you want to seize is defined, start collecting data.

Getting Utilities Onboard the Digitalisation Train Before It’s Too Late

As European Commissioner Kadri Simson said in her session with the International Energy Agency on the energy transition in June 2020, “Time is not on our side. It takes decades to turn around an industrial and technological system. But right now, we have political buy-in across the board on the need to act on climate issues.”

Without the support of innovative technology, the vision of a climate-neutral 2050 is not achievable. Solar PV is one renewable energy source that has the greatest possibility for upscaling. To accelerate the integration of solar, the right grid technologies need to be in place. In other words, grid operators need to digitalise the grid urgently today.

In summary, digitalisation is coming to the electricity sector, whether we are ready or not. And it needs to be embraced in a structured way. It’s not about capturing data for data’s sake; it’s about finding value in being ready to solve tomorrow’s problems today. Moreover, as the incoming CEO from E.ON recently said, “Invest now or regret later,” as under-investing will cost more than over-investing.

At depsys, we believe in simplifying the energy transition challenge. By capturing network data at transformer substations, cabinets, and critical areas (such as hospitals, data centres, and airports), you can simplify grid monitoring. Start where it matters most and scale it up one step at a time.

Damien Wetterwald is business analytics director with depsys.