The POWER Notebook: Power Sector Digitalization Accelerates

The pace at which new digitalization technologies are being adopted in the power sector is dizzying, but news from major players in the sector—among them, AES, Invenergy, Google, and IBM—this week suggests it will only accelerate. 

For more insight into power plant digitalization, including the latest in digital monitoring, diagnostic, analytics, Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), and decision-support technology, consider attending the Connected Plant Conference, which will take place from Feb. 25–27, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. 

More Utilities Embracing Cloud Computing—With Concerns

A new survey from software-as-a-service (SaaS) giant Oracle suggests 71% of utilities now use cloud software—up from just 45% three years ago. 

The report, conducted by research firm Zpryme, surveyed more than150 global utility leaders to better understand the pace and breadth of cloud computing adoption. Respondents spanned investor-owned, municipal, cooperative, and district/federal utilities representing electric, gas, water, and renewables. 

The company found the jump in cloud adoption was driven mainly by ambitions to improve customer experiences. “Just a few years ago, utilities looked at cloud computing with skepticism at best. Today, many realize it’s essential to their survival,” said Brian Bradford, vice president, industry solutions, Oracle. “Utilities are increasingly seeing cloud as a fundamental asset in meeting ever-evolving expectations, mitigating security concerns, and turning data into an opportunity to modernize and evolve their operations to better serve constituents and customers.”

Another driver involves better management of an ever-growing pool of data collected from smart meters, IoT sensors, and customers’ home energy devices, for example. “Utilities realize that it is becoming too great a task and risk to manage this influx without a significant investment in tools that can capture and analyze grid edge, supply chain, and customer data quickly. Utilities hope to use the technological flexibility provided by cloud computing to innovate by using data to solve business problems from grid optimization to managing distributed energy resources (DERs),” Oracle concluded.

However, nearly 85% of respondents also noted that security is a top concern; 81% also pointed to privacy as a key concern; and 75% said regulatory acceptance remains a key barrier to cloud adoption. “Concerns, however, were not around the vulnerability of cloud computing technology itself, but rather a growing barrage of increasingly sophisticated cybersecurity threats. Whether it is IoT devices, field area networks, or 5G networks, utilities are operating in a hyper-connected digital ecosystem that can provide new and varied opportunities for nefarious actors to expose their networks. Utilities recognize that they need to stay vigilant and that will require help from both regulators and vendors,” the company said. 

Notably, Oracle also found that many utilities began their cloud journey through enterprise applications, such as enterprise resource management (ERP) or human capital management (HCM), and that 74% plan to invest in cloud solutions in the next three to five years. “While a move to better serve and engage customers is driving this next phase of cloud adoption, operational system investments are not far behind. Forty-three percent of utilities have increased their operational spending by at least 25 percent over 2015 levels,” it said. 

AES, Google Embark on Strategic Alliance to Drive Digital Solutions for Clean Energy

On Nov. 6, AES Corp., a diversified global power company that holds $33 billion in total assets, announced a 10-year strategic alliance with digital behemoth Google to leverage Google Cloud technology and “pioneer innovation in the sector.” The alliance builds on a recent agreement between the two companies to provide long-term renewable power to Google’s data center in Chile, AES told POWER. 

The two companies will now collaborate to explore energy management opportunities for “clean energy” projects in the U.S. and Latin America. AES said it will use Google Cloud technology to help “create the grid of the future and improve the experience for energy customers.” It said Uplight—a company established in 2019 with the mergers of utility customer data analytics and energy engagement startups Tendril and Simple Energy (in which AES held significant shares)—will also use Google Cloud technology to “enhance its end-to-end energy action system, to increase customer satisfaction and reduce carbon emissions.” 

“Google Cloud’s leading platform, tools and cutting-edge technology will help redefine and improve AES and Uplight’s delivery of customer solutions through advanced cloud computing, data analytics, machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI),” AES noted in a statement. 

Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, said cloud technology is poised to be “an enabler for forward-leaning organizations seeking to put customers at the center of their business strategies.” Along with AI, ML, and data analytics, cloud technology could “help  transform the energy industry’s infrastructure, while driving wider adoption of renewable energy around the world,” he said. 

Invenergy Launches Power Digital Solutions Business 

Invenergy, a privately held global developer of renewable and gas power plants—and owner of the highly innovative 1.5-GW Lackawanna Energy Center in Pennsylvania (a 2019 POWER Gas Top Plant)—on Nov. 6 announced it added

 Invenergy Edge to its growing business portfolio. The new subsidiary will serve industrial and public sector facility and fleet owners with intelligent energy management by 

leveraging Invenergy’s “technology-agnostic approach, end-to-end capabilities, and cost-saving scale advantages.” The solution will help large energy consumers simplify and address soaring market demand for energy sustainability, power reliability, and fleet electrification, it said.   

Invenergy’s decision to launch the new business  comes as more companies commit to powering their businesses with 100% renewable power and embrace vehicle fleet electrification. “Technology cost reductions and digital innovation make it easier than ever for customers to lower their energy costs, increase reliability and advance sustainability – all at the same time. Yet, facility and fleet owners whose core businesses are not energy face challenges navigating a fragmented market with providers tied to proprietary solutions or with partial capabilities,” the company noted. 

Invenergy Edge will offer monitoring and management via its 24/7 Invenergy Control Center. It will also offer a customer portal to provide real-time visibility and tools to inform decision-making for facilities or fleets. The company emphasizes its “technology-agnostic” attribute, noting it can serve onsite solar, generators and fuel cells, energy storage, load management, smart controls, electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure, market interaction, or off-site renewables procurement. 

IBM Launches AI and Monitoring Solution

Also on Nov. 6, digital giant IBM launched an artificial intelligence (AI)–powered monitoring solution that it says could improve operations and maintenance of high-value physical assets. The offering, Maximo Asset Monitor, is an extension of  IBM’s Maximo enterprise asset management suite. 

IBM said the new offering will “help unlock essential insights with AI-powered anomaly detection and provide enterprise-wide visibility into critical equipment performance. The result is faster problem identification that can inform better decisions and reduce downtime.”

The solution is needed, the company said, because though digitized asset monitoring is widely available and deployed in the power sector, a “comprehensive view” is often hampered by fragmented legacy systems, data silos, and geographic barriers. The solution IBM has launched can aggregate data from across enterprises can now aggregate data from across the enterprise and combine it with advanced predictive analytics and AI to identify operational patterns. “Capabilities like AI-powered anomaly detection can help organizations identify the most important alerts among the hundreds generated daily from critical assets. This can help teams respond quickly to the most critical anomalies and gain greater insights into root cause variables that lead to asset failure,” it said. 

Sonal Patel is a POWER senior associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).