It’s Time for Utilities to Back Smart Grid Optimization with the Right Tech

The utility industry is an unsung hero for nearly every community—until the power falters. A prime example is the extreme weather that passed through much of the central U.S. this spring. In Houston, where my company is based, we recently experienced severe storms that left around a million businesses and homes without power.

These acts of nature and their impact on utilities exemplify the dangerous combination of aging systems and increased demand. This is further complicated by integrating renewable energy, labor shortages, a lack of real-time visibility, and high customer expectations.

In the last few decades, smart grid technology has made monitoring for maintenance, identifying key problem areas during outages, and ensuring peak operability during high-demand seasons possible. However, four key challenges still face smart grid transmission and distribution growth, but these obstacles can be mitigated with the right tech.

The Rapidly Increasing Demand for Utilities

“Smart grid” was defined and passed into law in the early 2000s, creating an avenue for significant progress for utility smart grid systems. But there is still work to be done.

The global smart grid market is forecast to surpass $130 billion by 2028. To support sustainable market growth, the right tech is needed to solve the challenges that stem from contractor labor management.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission estimates that electricity demand will increase by nearly 5% over the next five years. This correlates directly to the projected growth of the smart grid industry and is the impetus for ensuring this growth is realized. But without the right systems, teams, and processes in place, this growth may happen in an unsustainable fashion—or not at all, leaving growing parts of the U.S. and foreign communities without the systems needed to maintain their utility infrastructure.

Sourcing and Qualifying Specialized Labor

In addition to rapid growth predictions and rising demand for utilities, the ongoing skilled labor shortage adds an extra layer to the situation. Many roles associated with smart grid growth and development require stringent specialization and certification.

A workforce that doesn’t meet these requirements can result in significant errors and slowdowns, or in the worst case, the endangerment of teams and communities. So, it’s equally critical for utility leaders to both source contractors who meet these specialization certification requirements, and ensure that only the people certified to work on these specific tasks are the ones doing so.

Ensuring Contract Compliance

Contract development is a tedious, lengthy process. And in the case of the owner-contractor relationship, these contracts can be even more difficult to manage and enforce.

Typically, field managers seldom, if ever, see the contract terms and conditions for the vendors they are responsible for managing. Both teams are operating somewhat blindly regarding the contract. When this is the case, contractors may misbill their time, and some may operate machinery without a proper certification, putting everyone at risk of a safety incident.

The right software can mitigate this slew of side effects. Adopting and implementing a contractor data and spend management software platform that automates these back-office processes will streamline the overall project performance and ultimately drive cost savings for the utility owner.

Lacking Real-Time Visibility

Finally, the inability to access project and contractor data in real-time severely limits field managers’ ability to monitor and manage contract requirements, safety, and overall efficiency. From the safety perspective, it is critical to have real-time visibility into who is on the project site and what equipment or task they are working on at any given time. Field managers can then more effectively guide workers to muster points in an emergency and verify that all workers have been accounted for.

Supporting Safe, Effective Smart Grid Growth

The utility industry continues to develop and deploy smart grids across the U.S. To support this transition and the drive to meet increasing customer demand, the right tech must be in place to help make this happen efficiently, responsibly, and sustainably.

With contractor data and spend management software, inefficiencies and lack of visibility can be eliminated to unlock cost and time savings. These savings can be directly reinvested in the further development of smart grids and aid utility transmission and distribution.

Mike Naughton is regional vice president with Management Controls.