Ramping up for net zero: Digital transformation and capital delivery

How might new digital tools and data improvements help energy networks deliver the biggest infrastructure investment challenge of our generation? Industry leaders shared their expectations and concerns at a Utility Week working group.

Ask any leader in the energy networks industry what is keeping them awake at night and resource challenges will trip off the tongue. The sector needs to deliver a phenomenal scale of investment in short order keep the UK’s net zero ambition alive. And while concerted efforts are being made to expand the sector’s talent pool, it is obvious that the pace of decarbonisation means a critical mass of energy system transformation will need to be delivered using today’s workforce.

What can be done to ease the strain on the dedicated teams involved in designing, planning and delivering tomorrow’s net zero energy infrastructure, whose workload is exploding as asset growth and renewal projects hit the ground? This was a question pored over by a group of engineering and capital delivery experts at a Utility Week workshop, hosted in association with Autodesk at the end of 2023.

A variety of foundational requirements for cultural change in the sector were identified as important by our group, who were tasked with identifying how networks and key supply chain partners can accommodate the net zero ramp-up – including the creation of better frameworks for and attitudes towards collaboration across asset owners, delivery partners and equipment manufacturers.

But the real life raft available to energy networks and strategic partners as they limber up for the net zero gauntlet takes the form of digital innovation, it was agreed. Through better exploitation of data and digital tools, there is substantial opportunity for networks to reduce wasted effort, streamline processes and future-proof decision-making – alleviating stress and uncertainty for teams and individuals shouldering responsibility for system decarbonisation, and creating a more cost-effective system for customers too.

As one director of capital programmes at a major power distribution network commented: “This workload is not going to go away and this has significant implications across the system… Whether in terms of design and delivery capacity or [access to key kit from] OEMs, it’s putting on pressure and it means we need a new way of solving problems. Conventional approaches to delivery will not survive – cannot endure – If we want to meet the challenge in front of us.”

“Digital innovation is a key enabler,” they continued, with a word of caution to ensure technology adoption is always tethered securely to practical and strategic objectives. “Digital investment is not an end in itself, it is a means to an end.”

With consensus around the need for digital innovation, however, what are the obstacles or uncertainties that are holding networks back from seizing the full scope of opportunity? Our group identified a range of commonly recognised challenges:

Data confidence

There is limited confidence in the quality and completeness of existing asset data, which casts uncertainty over modelling of future system needs and perpetuates duplication of effort on data gathering, said our experts.

Low confidence and clarity over existing data is driven by fragmented data ownership and missing links between information from design stage and as-built assets.

Ownership of optimisation

Fragmentation of data ownership means there is no clear responsible party for data optimisation. Our group saw a need for a democratised model for improving data confidence and new ways of contextualizing and providing provenance for data.

There are lessons to be learned here from other sectors, it was agreed, with several workshop participants advocating for a more strategic use of BIM standards which have transformed public sector construction in recent years. In particular, they noted the advantages of the system of “unicodes” under BIM, which supports a standard language of classification for key kit and components.

Legacy versus new assets

As transmission operators drive forwards into a period of unprecedented infrastructure growth, characterised by large, complex projects, distribution networks face a different challenge. Here, the need to optimise the performance of the existing asset base while delivering a high volume of relatively low value reinforcement and resilience projects will be the name of the game. The two contexts lead to quite different digital requirements and associated investment budgets.

Participants from power distribution networks felt existing software licensing models generally mean they cannot build a business case for the use of advanced digital tools on high-volume projects. There was a real appetite however to unlock the advantages that digital innovation might be able to bring to highly repeatable projects. In particular, as operations and asset demands become more complex and dynamic at distribution level, there is an interest in leveraging digital tools for advanced, intelligent change management in capital programmes.

UK standards and specifications

The UK holds enviable records for energy reliability and cyber-security on an international stage, a position in part attributable to its distinct industry standards and specifications for network operations and equipment. However, as the efforts to decarbonise the power system ramp up globally, several members of our group questioned whether the UK’s commitment to distinct equipment standards and specification is putting it at a disadvantage when it comes to access to key kit and technologies. They asked if it is time to think in detail about whether some standards could be harmonised with European ones to improve cost efficiency and speed to delivery. Such a move would have implications for work on data standardisation and sharing, they noted.

The workshop closed with expressions of determined optimism from participants and commitments to redouble efforts to work collaboratively and embrace change across the eco system of asset owners, delivery partners and beyond.

Ideas generated during the session and challenges posed to existing industry approaches will be taken forward to a second working group on 17 January where a fresh group of senior industry leaders will be asked to suggest and signpost practical actions to remove barriers to digital innovation in net zero infrastructure delivery.

An artist’s impression of our working group’s discussions. Source: Ink Factory


SSEN Transmission’s story

SSEN Transmission is in the midst of planning and delivering a £20 billion investment programme designed to scale up the transmission network in the north of Scotland and connect more renewable generation sources to the grid.

“BIM is often misconceived as a 3D design model. That leads to missed opportunities.” Clare Montgomery, senior CAD engineer, SSEN Transmission

This level of investment in infrastructure demonstrates massive growth for capital delivery teams at SSEN Transmission, making the business one of the fastest growing transmission operators in Europe.

This challenge has led to a major review of SSEN Transmission’s capital delivery processes and contributed to the development of an ambitious, far-reaching digital transformation roadmap.

Part of this programme of change and improvement has included self-mandating the use of building information modelling (BIM) in all future capital projects. At our workshop, Simon Fraser, head of project engineering, and Clare Montgomery, CAD subject matter expert, delivered an introductory presentation which explained the drivers behind their strategy and some of the benefits that BIM in particular is bringing.

“BIM is often misconceived as a 3D design model,” commented Montgomery. “That leads to missed opportunities. Essentially, it is a standard process for digitising your assets and data – for being able to collaborate on project data and support ongoing management of it. It’s not just a tool for engineering.”

Reflecting on the rise of BIM in public sector construction – where it was mandated by government in 2016 – Montgomery flagged that it has brought average cost savings per project of 10%. “But more importantly, they are seeing better collaboration and efficiency and are making better decisions earlier on in projects,” she added.

At SSEN Transmission, adopting BIM has so far helped to rationalise project information, moving the company away from “bitty information” often delivered in a transactional manner on PDF attachments with marked up 2D renders.

Instead, SSEN Transmission has developed its in-house design capability and supported this with new tools. Engineers can now collectively view and collaborate via a construction cloud on 3D models of individual assets or kit, linked to bigger 3D renderings of substations and overhead lines so that plans can be viewed in context. This has helped spread helpful behaviour changes and align the whole project team around common understanding and vision.

“We have a genuine desire to move beyond outmoded concepts of competitive boundaries to work together differently and maximise the benefits of collaboration,” Simon Fraser, head of project engineering

Working with Autodesk, SSEN Transmission now has an enterprise license for its construction cloud which means delivery partners can also access and work on plans. “It means we can work together in a common data environment so we can all see the progress of designs and modelling,” enthused Montgomery, adding that the new digital environment has supported a tangible culture change in attitudes towards data sharing and openness. “We’ve now got better relationships with contractors and a mutual learning and improvement process,” she shared.

As SSEN Transmission refines and optimises its use of BIM, a key focus has been on the development of new Uniclass codes – an international classification approach – for transmission assets and kit to improve data interoperability and make design easier.

This work could have wider industry benefits and the business is proactively collaborating with other transmission operators and the wider industry supply chain to build out a 3D models library. Eventually this would reach into the distribution network too.

Picking up the narrative, Simon Fraser explained that generating this kind of whole-system benefit is important. “Fundamentally, we are all working to the same end – net zero. There is more than enough work for everyone and we have a genuine desire to move beyond outmoded concepts of competitive boundaries to work together differently.”

As a manifestation of this desire, Fraser pointed to SSEN Transmission’s recent creation of a new charter with 12 of its delivery partners for projects up to 2030, which commits everyone to breaking new ground in open collaboration and innovation.

Sharing an overview of the company’s digital strategy and how this will advance its ability to work dynamically with a changing ecosystem of partners on the road to net zero, Fraser extolled the “beauty of digital solutions” which can support agile change management, help visualise the impact of investment or design decisions for varied stakeholders – including environmental assessors – and overcome widespread duplication of effort on data gathering, releasing time and creative potential for innovation.

Meeting sustainability goals with data at the heart

Marek Suchocki, head of industry associations strategy at Autodesk, reflects on discussion at our workshop and suggests a few ways the energy industry can start overcoming digital innovation challenges and secure efficiency gains in capital projects.

Investment in energy networks and infrastructure is rapidly rising. The UK is set to see over £100 billion dedicated to net zero energy projects, spurred on by the Government’s plans to remove barriers to infrastructure investment, as announced in the recent Autumn Statement.

But this pace and scale of delivery cannot be achieved without significant digital transformation of project delivery. Digital tools and capabilities must be adopted to reap efficiency gains, better predict and control costs and boost collaboration between project teams.

From conversations with industry bodies and our own infrastructure clients, we know that this is a top priority for many. Several obstacles remain in the path of those on their digital transformation journey, but there is plenty the industry can do to support them.

Limited fiscal, material, human resources are hampering the industry

Energy firms are grappling with a lack of skilled talent and an acute materials shortage, while also being pressured to meet net zero targets with less resource, due to budget constraints. At the same time, their workload is exploding exponentially, with the sheer volume and scale of their power networks becoming overwhelming. Digital workflows can help mitigate some of these challenges by driving project efficiencies and improving collaboration between teams.

Data is a key enabler in the net zero infrastructure push

Energy firms are at the very start of the adoption curve for emerging technologies such as BIM, AI/machine learning and augmented reality, beyond the small number of high value/low value projects that require them today. Yet all of these technologies depend on data, which needs to be trusted, maintained and standardised. Being able to not only meet sustainability goals but also prove compliance and demonstrate improvement relies on having high quality, accurate data.

Success with digital tools and data requires people, processes, tech

Energy firms who want to get ahead of the curve must focus on three factors – firstly, their people – looking at reskilling and upskilling to ensure they have knowledge in the right areas and everyone is equipped to deal with the cultural change required. Secondly, processes must be put in place to ensure they always have access to their data, and it’s clear who has ownership and access rights, so that barriers around sharing data are removed. Thirdly, their tech and data must be trusted and accurate, so that they can have confidence in their data, a clear view of their assets, and a single source of truth. Cloud-based technologies can help firms to evolve their design capabilities, improve collaboration and establish better relationships between infrastructure owners and contractors, by connecting the dots.

Digital transformation is helping to unlock project efficiency, cost control and accurate carbon measurements across the board. With the right technology partners in place, energy firms will start to see these benefits come to fruition, which will help them push on to meet their net zero targets.

Autodesk is ready to be a proud partner in your digital transformation journey. Speak to us to find out how smart use of data can improve transparency, collaboration, quality and compliance across your project teams – and ultimately help to drive innovation, improve sustainability and maximise customer satisfaction.

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