Next month’s two-day Utility Week Congress will explore some of the key dilemmas assailing a sector buffeted by contradictory political, environmental and financial pressures.

Jane Gray chairs day one

Last week we saw yet another record-breaking climate change protest sweep across the UK as hundreds of thousands of people walked out of work or education in support of Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg’s global climate strike.

With such phenomena becoming almost commonplace, and a binding net-zero emissions target now in place for 2050, it is incumbent on utility sector leaders – across both companies and regulators – to take a moment to take stock and challenge whether their organisation is truly doing the most that it can to answer the public cry for stronger action against the threat of climate change.

At Utility Week Congress 2019 (in Birmingham, 8-9 October), we will capture that moment. With keynote presentations, live interviews and debate sessions including participation from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), both Ofwat and Ofgem’s chief regulators and a smorgasbord of prominent industry chief executives, the two-day event will undoubtedly attract some controversy.

We hope too that it will spark inspiration and momentum across the sector as companies square up to their inherent responsibility to forge the more sustainable and resilient utilities of the future that climate change demands.

But even as executives acknowledge the overriding imperative of climate change as a driver of future strategy, we can’t ignore the fact that today’s market is hurling pressures at firms that also demand immediate attention and resource.

Regulated monopolies across the energy and water sectors are at critical moments in the relentless cycle of their price controls. Dissent is swelling in the ranks as regulators continue to deliver promises for the toughest determinations yet, with some water companies claiming Ofwat’s draft determinations will leave them unable to make the investments that long-term resilience and sustainability require.

Meanwhile, the energy retail market is in turmoil with insolvencies at the bottom end of the market and major deals fundamentally altering the shape of the market at the top as players seek elusive economies and slivers of extra margin.

And water retailers are struggling to overcome the friction points that were built in at market opening two years ago, leaving an important opportunity to facilitate step changes in non-domestic water efficiency by the wayside, according to some influential market figures.

Utilities must find ways to overcome these immediate challenges and progress long-term interests in tandem. Utility Week Congress 2019 will surface the best opinion and example of how to do so.

 

The resilience rollercoaster

Utilities are getting used to battling the unknown, says Suzanne Heneghan, Congress chair on day two.

It’s just one year on from the October budget statement by Philip Hammond, the now ex-chancellor, which confirmed that the National Infrastructure Commission would be examining the resilience of the UK’s infrastructure.

Since then we have seen key parts of our national infrastructure tested to the limits – not least the fallout of extreme weather in Derbyshire that saw freak heavy rainfall cause a reservoir dam to crumble.

We have heard warnings from the chief  executive of the Environment Agency that England’s water supply is facing a “jaws of death” moment, that there will be shortages within 25 years as the effects of climate change and the demands of a rising population nudges levels to tipping point.

Even more dramatically, this has also been a year that has seen the biggest electricity network outage in decades. On 9 August a lightning strike triggered a chain of supply events that sparked significant chaos for the National Grid Electricity System Operator and brought disruption to the lives and plans of thousands of people.

It’s all played out against a political landscape of a cabinet in chaos, a long-awaited energy white paper that never was, a parliament in meltdown and a Brexit row paralysing decision-making on big ticket investments and long term-planning.

If that wasn’t enough, this year has marked a historic, world-leading pledge by the UK to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The response to our now “climate emergency” places utilities at the heart of the piece and sees the rising case for more renewables on the grid already changing the generation mix forever.

The challenge

Utilities are getting used to battling against the unknown and operating in a state of heightened alert. But day two of Utility Week Congress 2019 will be asking just how sustainable this is.

We’ll be hearing from industry experts, those building, running and maintaining our critical infrastructure, and asking what the key resilience challenges are and how we can truly stress-test our response going forward.

We’ll also be asking how utilities should be both preparing to meet these huge challenges for the sector, and ensuring they fully seize the many future opportunities ahead.

Technology

It’s a complicated, moving picture, with technology increasingly playing a major role in that future via the smart revolution that is seeing customers expect the same service levels from utilities as they receive from exemplar, global players.

Yet the more sophisticated and efficient, our utilities infrastructure becomes, the more vulnerable it is and, if disrupted, the greater impact such disruption has on people’s lives.

Congress will also be asking how we plug the resilience gaps, as relationships between the sector and technology become ever closer. We’ll also be looking at how we manage consumer expectations in the future.

Finance and investment

Key to the resilience vision will be securing sufficient investment.

Day two will be hearing from finance experts, from inside the industry. We’ll be discussing how more investment will be key to future plans, how utilities are shaping up from an investor’s perspective, and how we can keep investment flowing into the sector at a time of ongoing regulatory, domestic and international political uncertainty.

Collaboration

Congress will be rounding up by hearing how collaboration will prove vital in the months and years ahead if we are meet the nation’s infrastructure needs.

Joint working and corporate planning, joined-up thinking on regulation and policy – including about those in the vulnerability space – will be imperative in the new, more interdependent utility landscape of the future.

What more should government and utilities be doing to engender this new, collegiate approach and to ensure we are prepared for future shocks, change and disruption? Can we really be stronger together and what needs to happen next?

Join us at Utility Week Congress to find out more.

Day 1 highlights

  • Climate crisis and utility strategy: Chief executive debate.
  • A live interview with chief regulators.
  • Disruptor showcase: Octopus Energy’s Greg Jackson on the challenger brand’s acquisitions and growth ambitions.
  • Technology for tomorrow’s utilities: tech leaders’ debate.

Day 2 highlights

  • Building and maintaining resilience: Strategy and infrastructure experts will look at climate change challenges, preparing for evolving cyber threats, and planning for uncertain future needs and demands.
  • Finance and investment: Looking at the sector from the investor’s point of view in an uncertain climate, green finance, and cross-utility investment. Speakers include Jenny Pyper, chief executive, Utility Regulator, with a CFO/FD discussion on the risks from the resurgent volatility of currency markets.
  • Releasing a whole system view: With speakers and panel debate focusing on working with other organisations to improve the end service, including in the vulnerability space.
  • Breakouts: Separate sessions will look at smart customer service and operating smart assets.

 

For full details of the Congress, visit:
event.utilityweek.co.uk/congress/

 

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