In a survey canvassing the views of senior leaders from across the energy and water sectors, Utility Week has discovered that 77 per cent feel a dearth of robust data on the environmental impacts of the assets, operations and supply chains on the environment poses a major challenge to the delivery of organisational ambitions to transform for a net-zero future.

The research, commissioned by low-code automation specialist Appian, aimed to unearth leadership sentiment from across the utilities industry on the impacts the UK’s commitment to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 has had on their digital transformation objectives.

Completed by 44 individuals, largely holding roles at board level, director or head of department seniority, the survey showed that almost half (46 per cent) feel the UK’s net zero target has significantly altered the way their organisation thinks about digital transformation and the outcomes they desire from their digital investments. A further 43 per cent say net zero has had a “slight” impact in this regard.

The shift in expectations of digital transformation falls in line with a wider strategic pivot across the industry, with 90 per cent of respondents reporting that the net-zero commitment has triggered or accelerated a process of substantial organisational change in which corporate purpose and the kinds of opportunities to be pursued in the future have been reassessed.

To help achieve this strategic repositioning, 77 per cent said their organisation has introduced “stretching” targets to reduce the impact of operations and assets on the environment. And it was recognised the pervasive digitalisation will be critical to achieving these.

In terms of where digitalisation can have the biggest impact in the near term, respondents identified optimisation of renewable energy assets and field operations as being ripe for “quick wins”.

But there was a high degree of confidence expressed by most respondents about their ability to meet organisational net zero transition targets, with 44 per cent saying they are “extremely confident” about achieving transition milestones in a timely manner, they also acknowledged a range of significant potential barriers.

Of these, the most notable was a concern that lack of robust data on sustainability considerations will undermine the delivery of organisational targets. This was followed by doubts about the availability of funds for investment in key technologies which was identified as a challenge by 41 per cent.

These concerns were validated in industry commentary gathered for the research report (now available to download for free here) where senior industry representatives acknowledged a disconnect between strategic ambitions to adapt for a zero carbon future and clarity over the digital enablers required.

Commenting on the survey findings overall, Mike Heffner, vice president solutions and industry go-to-market at Appian observed: “The utilities sector is at a crossroads. As you’ll see in this research, the ambition to reduce carbon emissions and move towards a net zero future is high on the agenda for decision makers, but there’s a perilous gap between that ambition, and the culture and large-scale investments seen as necessary to get there.”