Utility Week Live 2023: The best of the show
Utility Week Live 2023 enjoyed record attendance as we once again united the sector to bring collaborative innovation to life. Across five theatres, plus workshops and collaborative exchange spaces, 150 industry-leading speakers from across the energy, water and gas sectors gave their views on the hottest topics.
Delegates got the chance to hear from industry leaders and experts on topics ranging from cyber security to asset management, decarbonisation to data analytics, skills to smart technology, service efficiency to solving the storm overflow crisis and from the future of hydrogen in the UK to protecting the most vulnerable in society.
With such a wide range of content on offer and some outstanding speakers, many sessions were standing room only.
Missed out on a talk or panel session or didn’t get the chance to attend in person? Don’t worry – we’ve rounded up all the highlights for you here.
Plans are already underway for next year’s show, which will take place 21-22 May at Birmingham’s NEC. Register for tickets and get updates on how the programme evolves over the next year by clicking on this link.
Utilities are under pressure as never before. Cyber threats have grown exponentially. Achieving net zero will require huge changes to operations. Asset management won’t deliver without a technological revamp. The water industry must rebuild its reputation. An enormous scale-up of hydrogen is needed. And how do we protect struggling customers in the worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation?
Utility Week Live 23 provided insights into all these areas and more, as industry leaders discussed and debated how utilities should negotiate extremely challenging times. What is clear is that digital technology will play a crucial role, from the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI), to protecting aging physical infrastructure from high-tech virtual attacks by hostile nations. A much more open, collaborative approach to the reams of digital data out there will also be essential for everything from asset management to cutting carbon emissions. (For all the sophistication of the latest technology, it’s worth remembering some companies still struggle to get the correct address information for customers, as attendees heard during one session).
However, digital is just one part of the puzzle. There’s a legacy of ageing equipment in the energy industry that needs to be upgraded and replaced. New physical infrastructure such as nature-based solutions, which are already helping water companies to reduce the burden on storm overflows, must be rapidly deployed. The nascent hydrogen economy urgently needs a huge and rapid scale-up of physical production and distribution assets if it is to deliver on its promises. Amid all that, utilities must also ensure they have trained millions of skilled workers if a much greener future is viable.
There’s a lot to contend with, but utilities are rising to the challenge. Read on to find out exactly how.
Digitalisation, data, and the future
In this chapter:
- Hostile nations target OT
- Data and resilience
- Smarter asset management
- Sharing data
- Shifting the dial on assets
- The pragmatic approach to cyber security
- Digital twins deliver innovation
- Groundbreaking research centre targets leaks
- How to prevent a cyber attack
- The user-centric future
Hostile actors target industrial control systems
Preparing to push the big red button?
Generative AI has the potential to take utilities down a wormhole but more pertinent to the energy sector right now is security and providing a digital protective skin during a period of unprecedented transformation, delegates heard during a keynote session at the show, sponsored by Google Cloud.
Threats facing industry have broadened in recent years, panellists said. Russia had become more interested in attacking industrial control systems. Iran also targets operational technology. With this focus on nations, it was easy to forget that lone hackers now had access to information on how to attack operational technology on criminal forums and illicit websites. That meant getting the security basics right was more important than ever, attendees heard.
Meanwhile nation states are scaling up their capabilities. “We know that Russia and other actors don’t want to push a big red button to completely disrupt the energy system right now – but we do know they are building the capability to do that should there be the political will,” explained Chris Sutherland, chief information security officer, National Gas Transmission. He added that Russia was also doing “non-attributable things” to reduce the resilience of our networks without being blamed for it. Nation states are also using social media to carry out hostile reconnaissance of potential targets.
With all the focus on risk, it was easy to forget the benefits of digital. “Analytics helps improve our bottom line, makes us more responsive to changes in supply and demand, and also more productive,” Sutherland pointed out.
Why data underpins the resilient utility
Strategies for change, strategies for complexity
Underpinning all aspirations to create utilities which are efficient, resilient and sustainable – in the fullest sense of the word – is data. In recent years, some major industry initiatives have identified key actions which should be taken improve the quality, completeness and accessibility of industry data – both within and between organisations. Have they succeeded in creating sectors which are fit for a digital future?
The answer from experts at one Utility Week Live keynote session was, ‘not yet’. But we need to act urgently to shift the dial: both on readiness for digital, and on the availability of trusted frameworks for the movement of data between utilities and others.
Happily, said leaders participating in a panel debate sponsored by Siemens, there is real hope this will happen in the next year. One (keenly anticipated) development is the passing of the Data Security and Digital Information Bill into law. Both political and technical experts identify this as a key enabler for the creation of growth-focused data strategies and greater clarity about the commercial incentives for creating a data ecosystem spanning traditional industry silos.
In addition, the creation of the Smart Data Council should accelerate the availability of clear industry roadmaps for secure and fluid data sharing, using the open banking model as a guide.
But these milestones should not defer responsibility for a data usage revolution, our panelists emphasised. Instead, there was a call to arms for industry leaders to embrace a future of “connected everything”. “If we are going to go far, we need to go together,” summed up Gavin Starks, founder and chief executive of Icebreaker One – a key player on the new Smart Data Council.
Siemens’ head of IoT applications, Adam Cartwright, agreed, commenting: “The rate of change in data and digital technologies is increasing and the only way to make the benefits real is to collaborate and find the right combination of partners. No one company can do everything – but each company has a part to play”.
Reflecting on how companies can best prepare, Cartwright added: “There is lots of talk about a company’s ‘digital strategy’ or ‘data strategy’. But we need to be clear that this should not be a technology strategy, but a strategy for change and complexity that includes digital technologies.”
Asset management gets smarter
The challenge of a lifetime
The UK’s gas and water network operators have a once in a generation challenge on their hands. Their legacy assets, which have functioned for decades or more, now need to adapt to meet new priorities and different demands. The race to net zero creates urgency – and smart technology is key to delivering change, fast. Utility Week Live, in association with Automa, brought together a group of asset management professionals from gas, power and water networks to discuss the potential of smart asset management to revolutionise their businesses – and the challenges of rolling it out.
The first thing that became clear was that, for all the strides that have been made, there are still significant challenges in implementing smart asset management. Our delegates from the gas sector emphasised how safety must always be their utmost priority and, where gas leaks are a possibility, condition-based monitoring can sometimes feel just too risky. Cyber security is likewise high on the agenda, with networks mindful that as operators of critical national infrastructure they must be cautious when entrusting their data to third parties. Finally, there was discussion of cultural blockers – organisations are used to working in a particular way and it can be hard to change.
Smart management in action
Despite this, there were some great examples of smart asset management in action – particularly in the water sector, where for some companies, it is fast becoming the norm. In gas networks too, there are projects where a smarter approach to asset management is changing the game – particularly those in receipt of regulated innovation funding, which gives networks the freedom and confidence to experiment in ways that might not usually be possible.
Gas networks face a particular challenge as they explore the use of hydrogen in place of natural gas as a means of cutting carbon emissions. Hydrogen needs to be pumped at far higher pressures than natural gas, potentially placing huge demand on the existing infrastructure and requiring a new, smarter approach to management and maintenance.
For Automa, a proactive, forward-looking means of smart asset management is essential. Automa’s commercial director Stefano Menghini said: “We have been around since 1987 and our core business is to design and manufacture technologies for smart asset monitoring and control for utilities: innovative and forward-looking approaches are therefore in our DNA. And we do also believe the entire utility sector should be chasing those values, gradually but relentlessly.
“At the same time, hyper specialisation and long-term partnership are a must: digitalisation and complexity are demanding and continuously increasing. Now is the time for companies to really turn into experts and technological partners, leaving the traditional customer-supplier paradigm behind.”
Why data sharing is critical
Don’t reinvent the wheel
“Without data sharing there is no future energy sector.” That was the warning by Ofgem senior manager – data policy and regulation, Charles Clark.
Clark stressed the importance of data sharing on a panel, alongside senior figures at the Energy Digitalisation Task Force, Northern Gas Networks, Northumbrian Water Group and AWS.
Dr Richard Dobson from the Energy Digitalisation Task Force said the reasons for open data sharing were intrinsically linked to the challenges facing the sector. He added that open data will facilitate the drive to net zero, support the rollout of hydrogen and inform key decisions on future infrastructure decisions.
However, Dobson warned that all players within the sector need to be on board for it to be a success.
That was a sentiment echoed by Northern Gas Networks commercial support manager Tom Pollock who warned that while “getting your own house in order is a good place to start […] it is not enough to be successful”.
Northumbrian Water’s head of intelligence and analytics Melissa Tallack added that to get everyone moving in the same direction greater standardisation needs to be adopted. “There is no point reinventing the wheel; copy what is already out there and standardisation will happen naturally,” she concluded.
Clark admitted that while there are “big steps to take” they are “necessary for natural evolution across multiple parts of the sector”.
Shifting the dial on assets
Chair Ellen Bennett, portfolio director for Utility Week and Utility Week Live, opened the asset managers’ gamechangers session by explaining how the show’s content programme is put together using analytics from across Utility Week’s events and publishing content to determine what’s top of mind for utilities leaders – and how asset management always comes out top.
She then introduced four companies, sharing insights that genuinely move the dial on asset management.
National Gas’s senior delivery engineer, hydrogen, Shaun Bosomworth, shared how Project Union is repurposing assets for the potential rollout of hydrogen. Anglian Water’s senior smart water systems engineer Charlotte Stewart explained the move to condition-based asset monitoring and maintenance. Outram Research’s sales and operations manager Kate Edwards talked about an innovation in fault-level monitoring that could help power networks cut the cost of reinforcements by millions. And SAP’s utilities chief solutions expert Gero Bieser explained how SAP’s platform underpins innovation in asset management.
Bieser said: “SAP provides a solution landscape for the whole asset lifecycle as a foundation for asset management gamechangers from partners and utility customers. It enables integrated applications, seamless processes and consistent data.”
Closing the session, Bennett highlighted how a long-term approach to asset management, proactivity and the targeted use of insights arising from data were the key themes.
Cyber security: Where should I focus?
The human factors of digital security
A panel discussion on cyber security discussed attitudes to risk and the need to change behaviour as well as invest in technological solutions.
Speakers included Alexandra Luck, joint policy lead at the National Digital Twin Programme, Silvano Sogus, director of security architecture and assurance at the smart meter network operator, DCC and Ben Miller, vice president of services at cyber security specialist Dragos.
The trio discussed the danger of utilities setting out an ambition for “gold-plated security” when in fact the pragmatic approach is to understand which areas are most liable to attack and focus there first. Miller pointed out that utilities already have a wealth of data about their systems and could use this to game out potential threats and identify gaps.
Luck shared her concerns that IT teams often have very little connection with human resources or facilities management despite these all providing different forms of security for a company. Sogus built on this point to raise the challenge of embedding cyber security within a company culture. The panel went on to discuss the impact of the rise of homeworking on the cyber resilience of organisations, with Miller citing the increasing interconnectivity of devices as a challenge.
Miller added: “It isn’t the case that everything needs to be reinvented to be cyber secure. Companies often have a tonne of procedures already that they can adapt. They just have to be reminded that that is all there.”
Digital twins drive water innovation
A packed-out session on smart water networks galloped through several success stories, from SES Water’s first year with a fully smart network, which (spoiler alert) performed better than Jeremy Heath, head of innovation, could have hoped for. AI systems can only learn from experience, but the network rapidly adapted to not only a six-week drought but an extreme winter, and helped the company find and fix leaks in record time.
Severn Trent’s control and automation architect, James Ballard, and Thames Water’s lead data scientist, Jethro Yates, both extolled the game-changing benefits digital twins bring to network-wide innovation. With so many variables in any catchment, stretching across many kilometres of pipe, simulating behaviours is crucial. Ballard described the gains the company hoped to make by understanding the dynamics of wastewater pipes. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure – but we also have to understand it,” he said of work that uses AI to optimise treatment and reduce pressures on sewage overflows.
From a supplier viewpoint, Caryn Novak, water innovation manager at Innovyze, set out her vision of relieving the pressure on operational teams by taking a uniform approach to decision-making based on data. “Digitisation empowers – with more and more regulatory requirements and many variables, it’s too much for a spreadsheet.” She said models know what normal should look like, helping control room teams move towards predictive management of assets.
New research and test centre targets leaks
Smart meters crucial to reducing consumption
A ground-breaking collaboration between 14 water companies in the UK and Ireland and academia will create a national leakage research centre thanks to funding from Ofwat, the session heard.
Clive Surman Wells, innovation partnership manager at Northumbrian Water, which will lead the project, described the vision: for a research and test centre to help innovators take ideas to the next level. “People with ideas need a live network with real challenges to test solutions, not just a few pipes in their garage.” The centre will feature 5km of buried pipes complete with valves, sensors, a control room and technicians. Although only in the design phase, the centre is expected to open in May 2025 for three years.
Scott King, smart metering benefits realisation manager at Anglian Water, described the company’s rollout of smart meters, scheduled to reach 1.1 million homes by 2025. This has identified household leaks, with customers appreciating being informed so they can make repairs and save on bills. Access to data helps customers understand their usage and develop trust with the water company, King said.
Installing smart meters represents a profound opportunity to bring a much-needed step change in how we all use water and this needs to be accelerated, said Mike Smith, executive director at Arqiva. Smith said smart metering – at scale to identify leaks – must be achieved with a mix of technologies to meet the different needs of rural and urban environments.
How to foil a cyber attack
Lessons from the nuclear industry
Airbus Protect asked attendees to its collaborative session to foil a hypothetical cyber attack on a nuclear reactor using only their wits and a budget consisting entirely of chocolate coins.
Divided into teams, delegates were encouraged to spend their funds wisely to cover off as many risks as possible from a simplified but nonetheless realistic nuclear industry risk register. Would teams plump for upgrading legacy equipment or installing new anti-virus software? What about human factors? Could a disgruntled staff member be at risk of disclosing confidential information? Would too much exposure to risk lead to a fine from the ONR?
The game, which Airbus uses with potential customers, provides an introduction to its Airbus Protect CyberRange simulation and training platform for IT, OT and moving platform environments.
CyberRange can simulate customers’ entire company and industrial environments, including virtual and physical production systems. It helps users to respond to cyber security incidents, protect assets and networks, comply with regulations, identify risks and detect potential threats by simulating real attacks and allowing digital testing of environments which are difficult to test using conventional penetration testing. The system is already being used to provide cyber security capability at Airbus Defence and Space factories, attendees heard.
Introducing ethical hacking
Airbus Protect also offers ‘ethical hacking sessions’ to give insights into the mindset of hackers. The aim is to equip people on the course with a better understanding of how cyber attackers target systems and provide cyber crisis management training using CyberRange as a learning tool.
Airbus Protect aims to create a ‘culture of threat awareness’ led by cyber experts, tailored to audiences from executive-level to graduates, and customised to an organisation’s specific threat level. Airbus Protect’s OT awareness training equips employees to minimise connected OT failures, while meeting compliance requirements and developing existing security measures.
The future is user-centric
Helping define flexibility’s future
The ‘delivering digitalisation of flexibility markets’ Collaborate Exchange session took a highly interactive approach. Led by Ofgem’s Doug Cook and the Association for Decentralised Energy’s Lily Frencham, it aimed to gather feedback from the assembled industry leaders to feed into Ofgem’s recent Call for Input on the Future of Distributed Flexibility. Cook and Frencham posed three questions to the four groups gathered in the sessions, who had about 10 minutes to answer each question. Here’s a sample of what they said:
Question: What does an integrated digital future for markets look like?
Answers: The future must be user-centric; there must be common standards to facilitate data-sharing; and there can be no end point, just way points – the transition will continue indefinitely.
Question: What governance and roles do we need to get there?
Answers: Regulatory and code bodies need to stop waiting for certainty; DSOs need to do more standardising and data sharing; and the industry needs to keep progressing with regulated innovation funding.
Question: What does the platform and architecture system look like? What should be centralised, and what should be decentralised?
Answers: Generally, it was felt that there should be centralised criteria for success, and centralised standards and processes – together with, possibly, a centralised user interface. Everything else should be decentralised and built on top of the common standards, our delegates believed.
The environment and net zero
In this chapter:
- Sharing data to achieve net zero
- A clean slate for the water sector
- Climate-resilient infrastructure
- Opportunities for nature-based solutions
- Dealing with storm overflows
- The future of hydrogen
Why net zero relies on data
Time to open up
Data sharing will be crucial to achieving net zero and enabling the energy and water sectors to improve their performance for customers, attendees to the session heard. Paul Linnane, director of data and development at ElectraLink, which supports the flow of information between utilities and innovation for the energy transition, outlined the scale of the challenge: “It will take a number of parties and a host of organisations to make it work.”
ElectraLink is already removing barriers to accessing data for millions and homes and business to reduce carbon emissions. In the water sector, thanks to projects such as Stream, open data is expected to help create solutions to improve river water quality that don’t just rely on traditional, slow and carbon-intensive engineering techniques. Long-term, data sharing is also expected to play a part in rebuilding trust with customers.
Kathryn Corrick, development and strategy director at Icebreaker One, is now working with the water industry as well as energy, ESG and finance to facilitate using data to tackle climate change. (Want to find out more? Look here.) For example, access to data from the energy sector will be critical to many businesses’ carbon reduction targets, while planning data will help to locate hydrogen production infrastructure close to sources of renewable energy.
“Opening up data requires a cultural change toward openness and collaboration and thinking beyond our own industries,” she said.
Reimagining the water landscape
What would a clean slate for water look like?
“If we were to start with a blank canvas, we would certainly not design the system to look like it does at the moment.” So said one participant at a roundtable reimagining the water landscape. But that begs the question of what it should look like, and what specific changes would make the most impact?
This was an opportunity for capital delivery managers, consultants and regulators to have a lively, unbarred discussion on the direction of travel for the water industry. While the vision is not lacking, there is little cohesion or joining up of what is being done across the country, or even by various organisations within a region, the attendees said.
Participants noted the ambition in the government’s 25-year environment plan, but said it is not aligned with regulators’ timeframes for companies to get work done. It’s the same with targets such as the need to remove phosphorous, which participants noted could be better done without a rigid timeframe that is forcing companies into grey solutions. Nature-based solutions, if given time, would bring multiple benefits as well as working towards net zero carbon targets.
Ideas bounced around the table included the need for a single regulatory body to prevent current contradictions or overlaps in requirements. Legislation was described as contradictory by more than one participant, who noted clashes between top line ambition in the 25-year environment plan and the Environment Act.
The motivation is there, hurdles remain
There is no lack of ambition in the sector, but there are barriers to what can be achieved – financial constraints and, as was underlined more than once, regulatory hurdles. One participant noted that although there is boundless ambition, collaboration between stakeholders revealed differences between the ambitions of each group.
With funding limited and affordability challenges facing all companies, participants highlighted the sheer waste of resources regulations mean for every wastewater company. The discussions moved through senseless dictates on certain sensors which will not provide new or useful data, such as under the Environment Act, but will cost each company huge amounts.
Likewise, the water industry national environment programme prescribes tighter limitations on phosphorus – without flexibility to consider catchment-wide levels. The group mooted flexible permitting, with company-specific examples of successes. The Environment Act, however, does away with the opportunity to take a catchment-by-catchment approach.
Open data will protect the environment
But what is it, and how do I use it?
Energy companies, driven by regulation and government targets, have made “significant strides” in opening up their data but there’s a lot more to do. That was the message from Kathryn Corrick, development and strategy director at Icebreaker One. (Its mission? Make data work harder to deliver net zero.)
Just what is open data? Data is officially open only when it is free to use, re-use, or distribute, and placed in the public domain with minimal license restrictions (Creative Commons, for example). It must be both legally open and technically open – or published in non-proprietary machine-readable electronic formats. Anyone should be able to access it using common, freely available software on a public server without the interference of firewalls or having to enter a password. To make open data easier to find, many organisations are creating or managing open data catalogues.
And why is open data important? For one thing, achieving net zero will require open data, the session heard. Data must be “connected to the practical capabilities needed in the energy transition at pace,” explained Mike Ricketts, head of data and analytics at SSE. Corrick acknowledged that “utilities may be in very different spaces when it comes to open data”. When it’s an engineer’s job to mitigate risk, sharing data publicly may seem hazardous. “There is the question of whether the data is applicable to be shared under certain conditions and whether it will be used appropriately,” Corrick explained. That means there’s a strong cultural as well as technical aspect to open data.
Go further than cutting greenhouse gases
Icebreaker One considers net zero to go much further than just cutting greenhouse gas emissions: it should mean net zero impact on ecosytems in general, including nature and the biosphere as a whole. That won’t be possible without sharing data, so the project aims to allow organisations to find, access and use finance, industry and environment data based on collaboratively defined open standards and trust frameworks.
The net zero data ecosystem includes information on climate, energy, the built environment, agriculture, transport, water and finance. Energy data might include information about assets, grid optimisation, or energy flows. Icebreaker One argues that all net-zero data should be open.
“We want organisations to understand the mutual value in the ecosystem and how it fits into the energy transition,” said Corrick.
Developing climate-resilient infrastructure
Utilities must share information
The common thread among speakers during the discussion of climate-resilient assets and infrastructure was the importance of data-sharing within and between sectors given utilities’ numerous interdependencies.
Elliot Cristou from the Connected Places Catapult described how its Climate Resilience Demonstrator (CReDO) project had worked with Anglian Water, UK Power Networks and BT to develop a prototype digital twin of water, energy and telecoms infrastructure.
He said the digital twin is being underpinned by a distributed data-sharing architecture that enables users to access other parties’ information when needed, while also maintaining control over their data in their own controlled environments.
Cristou said the project had shown how tools of this kind can help utilities to understand the interconnected risks to infrastructure from extreme weather events, including from cascading failures, as well as the full costs and benefits of their decisions so investment can be targeted more efficiently.
Fionn Boyle, strategic innovation and shop window lead at Anglian Water, spoke about the company’s Smart Safe Systems project to apply artificial intelligence to the operation of water infrastructure. Boyle said the most important part of its work is the development of minimum data standards, which must be embedded into the working practices of staff so the collection of new data does not add to the challenge of cleansing existing information.
Phil Tomlinson from Metasphere similarly noted the importance of addressing issues around data standards, nomenclature and integration early on, whilst also emphasising the need to put relevant subject matter experts at the centre of this work.
Creating more opportunities for nature-based solutions
Natural schemes: Choked by regulation?
Amina Aboobakar, United Utilities’ director of strategic development and seconded to The Rivers Trust, outlined inadequate and often conflicting policy and regulation in the nature-based solutions space. Despite ambition from water companies to include more nature-based solutions in water and wastewater systems, difficulties remain in proving the efficacy of systems, particularly in situations where tight regulations need to be met.
Graham Weston, wastewater and sludge strategy manager, Yorkshire Water, talked about a wetlands project at Clifton treatment works, which despite its many successes has faced resistance – even within the company. The novel treatment approach produces seasonal variations, which he explained could agitate engineers used to consistent, controllable results.
Clare Deasy, Northumbrian Water’s strategic catchment manager, said prescriptive legislation may force decisions that do not represent best overall value despite the need to maximise returns on investment in the environment. As a relatively small company, she added, its environmental investment was projected to be around 10 times greater in the next asset management period than the current one – a potential rise from £200 million to £2 billion.
In contrast to rural areas, Ground Control’s head of design Matt Goddard highlighted what could be done with nature-based solutions in urban spaces. He urged collaboration between utilities to avoid cables and pipes when adding green spaces and stressed the need for early planning.
Tackling combined sewer overflows
One hell of a starting point
“I have spent a lot of time working in Afghanistan and there was a joke there that wherever you were, if you asked how to get to Jalalabad, the answer was ‘don’t start here’.”
This, said Mike Williamson, managing director, Adler & Allan, sums up where the water industry in the UK finds itself when it comes to storm overflows. It was, of course, easy to say the problem will require billions in investment and decades to sort out. “We have a system designed to spill that is spilling and we don’t want it to spill. That’s a difficult start point,” Williamson said.
Utilities are getting stuck in to address the issue, however. Southern Water’s Dr Nick Mills said the Isle of Wight was one of its worst-performing areas, and that tourism is crucial to the economy. “Targeting interventions in catchments really requires insight – I’m talking lifting manholes, die tracing, look-see cameras – and also optimising what you already have.” He used the example of a treatment works where his team has been able to waive standard operating restrictions to reconfigure the storm tanks and increase capacity by a third.
Meanwhile Adam Boucher, operational lead for Severn Trent’s £76 million Mansfield Sustainable Flooding Resilience Project, the largest sustainable drainage system retrofit in the UK, said the utility is already using nature-based solutions to reduce surface water flooding and frequency of storm overflow activation, with 58 million litres of extra storage now on the network.
When it comes to tackling storm overflows, “there will be a book on what we’ve learnt so far and we’ll be sharing all the information,” Williamson suggested.
Ruth Barden, director of environmental strategy at Wessex Water, said beaches in Dorset are routinely rated as good or excellent despite storm overflows up-river. This, she said, showed that much more research is needed to understand the impact of storm overflows on water quality.
Hydrogen: A long way to go
A Herculean task
Dr Angie Needle, director of strategy at gas distribution network Cadent, says “we are on the cusp of a revolution” in which hydrogen becomes a large part of the energy system in the transition to net zero. But given that we are producing, using and storing relatively little hydrogen right now, the task ahead is huge, she said.
The government’s hydrogen strategy includes decarbonisation of industrial clusters, which will be a crucial first step on the road ahead, Dr Needle said. Blending hydrogen in the natural gas network will also be important to match supply of hydrogen with demand. Danielle Stewart, project director for the Project Union hydrogen ‘backbone’ scheme at National Gas Transmission, added that a hydrogen network would not only improve the resiliency of the energy system but also ultimately lower costs for consumers because of increased competition.
Billions of pounds of investment will be needed to build that network. In general, renewable energy development is in danger of stalling in the next CfD round because investors can’t see enough of a return, Guidehouse director Mark Livingstone warned Utility Week Live delegates. Incentives are needed for hydrogen storage, he added. “We need something that gives more certainty to hydrogen producers and infrastructure providers. If we don’t orchestrate it, it won’t happen.”
People, organisations and culture
In this chapter:
- Defining the role of the DSO
- Utilities under pressure
- How to do root cause learning
- Green jobs and tomorrow’s workforce
- Smart meters: Selling the concept
- Protecting vulnerable customers and improving services
- The power of correct addresses
What is ‘business as usual’ for the DSO?
Flexibility is key
A flexibility-first approach is key to establishing the function of distribution system operators (DSOs), according to those charged with establishing the new entities.
Senior figures from National Grid, Northern Powergrid and SSEN all stressed the importance of flexibility within their business-as-usual practices, during presentations at Utility Week Live.
The trio were joined by Enzen Group’s chief evangelist Harsha Anand, who agreed that prioritising flexibility will be key to the DSO function – but warned that it will only be achieved if data is collected and processed in the right way.
National Grid director of distribution system operator Ben Godfrey said National Grid was taking a “flexibility-first approach” adding that the days of solely focusing on reinforcement were coming to an end.
Paul Glendinning, director of policy and markets at Northern Powergrid, added that flexibility in the energy sector was key to keeping customer bills low.
However he said that it was part of a “wheel of fortune”, which has policy at the centre and also includes unlocking major connection problems and increased monitoring and forecasting of energy demand.
Glendinning stressed that monitoring and forecasting would only become more crucial with the greater uptake of low-carbon technologies, such as electric vehicles and heat pumps.
Melanie Bryce, head of networks and market development at SSEN, added that investment in data and digital is key to DSO success.
She said it was one of five key learnings from the company’s Project Leo flexibility trial.
The other four learnings include: backing local area energy plans; ensuring flexibility agreements are fluid enough to be influenced by aggregators; campaigning for more innovation funding; and that optimisation behind the secondary substation brings a wide range of benefits.
Why utilities are under unprecedented pressure
Locating the sources of operational pain
Utilities are under intense pressure to deliver more for less. And not just a little bit more. In the next seven years, power networks will need to build out more infrastructure than they have delivered in the last 30 to accommodate decarbonisation and converging dependence on electricity for transport and heating. That was the message from Cordi O’Hara, recently installed president of National Grid Electricity Distribution.
Water utilities are on the brink of a similar infrastructure splurge. And with affordability high on the agenda, company regulators have been clear they expect large swathes of this investment to be funded with money freed up by a ruthless focus on operational efficiency.
But where should utilities look for these efficiency gains? At a roundtable sponsored by STC Insiso – which provides AI-enabled business improvement services across industries – operational leaders from energy and water expressed uncertainty and identified a need for more systematic approaches in their organisations to interrogating performance data for the root causes of failures – both large and small.
The absence of such approaches to date, it was agreed, is in part down to the availability of time and resources in teams which are already overstretched. It is hoped AI and machine learning might overcome this constraint and expose the issues which lie behind chronic operational pain points.
Cultures where it’s ok to fail
To make best use of what technology can offer, however, participants in the debate also agreed that energy and water companies need to make strides towards establishing more open cultures where reporting “failure” is a welcome and depersonalised part of learning and improvement. While this is often talked about as a key attribute of successful and progressive organisations, industry leaders said it is not firmly embedded across the sector yet – especially at the interface between utilities and their major contractors.
Reflecting on the discussion, Mark Rushton, chief executive of STC Insiso, said: “Organisations who really want to learn how to be their best selves need to understand why they get things wrong, and why they get them right. Investigation and assurance tools and approaches will only ever reveal accurate insights if an organisation’s culture is supportive of an honest dialogue that enables people to freely discuss how work is really done without fear of reprisal or blame.”
He continued: “Error, particularly human error, is inevitable. Creating a just culture that normalises the process of establishing the contributors to these mistakes gives a business the best possible chance of putting in place the risk controls that can eliminate recurrence.”
A masterclass in root cause learning
All pain, no gain?
Do utilities understand what’s driving their operational failures and incidents? And are they equipped to eliminate or suppress the root causes?
In an Innovation Stage presentation, leaders from STC Insiso delivered a masterclass in “root cause learning” and how it can help utilities outperform in challenging times.
The lively session, which saw STC Insiso’s chief executive, Mark Rushton, and chief operating officer, Steve Holmes, assume the identities of ‘active’ and ‘dormant’ threats highlighted how many companies, across sectors, are held hostage by recurrent operational issues which drive a reactive, firefighting-style approach to improvement. All the while, unseen dormant threats accumulate and can manifest in major incidents with serious safety, financial and reputational consequences.
Advocating a methodical, technology-enabled approach to “root cause learning at scale” the duo set out five steps to eliminating active threats and locking dormant threats down:
1: Establish an agnostic taxonomy for threats
2. Build proportion into your toolkit
3. Build discipline and expertise into your analysis
4. Build human factor analysis into your investigations
5. Harness Big Data
Summing up the role AI can play in effective risk management and performance improvement, Rushton said: “AI technology has exploded into our collective business worlds in recent times – creating a bewildering range of potential ways to better understand and make use of our data.
“Utilities can benefit from the technology in a variety of ways, particularly through HSEQ lenses that offer insight into the full range of failures and inefficiencies by revealing key recurring topics or phrases, commonly occurring hazards, severity, and even root cause categorisation.”
In conclusion, he added: “Technology can reveal not just a mythical primary cause, but multiple causes spanning the entire organisational spectrum. These can be presented and correlated, displaying each category in order, and revealing trends. When combining these insights with some standard classification of the events, such as contractor or project or location, we can start to build some powerful views of the data and address underlying issues.”
The workforce of tomorrow
Skills: A puzzle without a picture
To achieve the country’s climate targets, utilities must attract and retain a workforce with the right skills. There is a major challenge ahead and industry experts said utilities had to make the sector an attractive place to work.
Danny Petrecca, VP business development at panel session sponsor Locusview, outlined several problems in digitising a traditionally non-digital workforce. “The construction workforce, the field workforce, has really made a career out of resisting technological adoption in the past,” he said.
Ovo’s people transformation lead Ollie Bolwell, meanwhile, likened the workforce challenge to that of a puzzle without a picture on the box. The numbers of workers required are huge, as Mat Ilic, chief executive and co-founder of greenworkx pointed out. He highlighted how 30 million “green workers” will be needed globally by 2030 for frontline net zero roles.
Jenny McGreavey, people director at Cadent Gas, was keen to point out that while consumer expectations have soared following the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, so too have those of employees. She spoke about the need to offer flexible working patterns and added that the organisation was looking into potentially advertising every role as part time “as standard”.
Smart metering – finishing the job
Why smart meters need a door-to-door service
To finish the smart meter rollout, customers need to be better informed about their benefits. That was the overarching opinion of four industry experts speaking at Utility Week Live.
Senior figures at Utilita, Ovo, BEAMA and Salesforce all called for more to be done to make customers aware of smart meter advantages.
Utilita chief home services officer George Walter said that customers need to be made aware of the possibilities that smart meters offer; being more efficient, achieving net zero, and keeping bills down. He said that a big part of obtaining public buy-in is ensuring there is “trust” between customers and the industry.
Jeremy Yapp, BEAMA head of flexible energy systems, also called for a focus on trust – arguing that government and Ofgem interventions in relation to forced prepayment meter installations are a good stepping stone to restoring trust in the sector. He also called for the mandate on energy suppliers to offer smart installations to homeowners to be extended to the private rental sector. He said this would “fundamentally change” the lives of millions of people who currently don’t see the benefits that smart meters offer.
Meanwhile, Dr Katie Russell, Ovo data director, said that customers respond positively to the benefits of smart meters when they are given the right data in the right way. She said that making customers aware of the benefits of real-time metering data is key to completing the rollout.
Salesforce enterprise architect Ronald Starreveld closed out the session by calling for the rollout of smart meters to be done more effectively by targeting communities in a “bin service” door-to-door style manner.
Customers in crisis: Protecting the vulnerable
Data holds key to helping struggling customers
Utility Week Live covered a wide range of topics, but one of the recurring themes across multiple sessions was the need to protect vulnerable consumers. Day two of the conference saw industry experts come together to share their learnings around how to protect the vulnerable during times of crisis. A consistent theme during the session was data sharing and collaboration. “The best experiences come from the best data,” observed Carolyn Delehanty, vulnerable customer experience coach at Delehanty Consulting.
Charlie Barnes, innovation project lead at UK Power Networks, noted that vulnerability is “situational”. They explained there are different barriers and challenges that customers face at different points of their lives. UKPN is developing new tools to analyse existing data to better understand the issues and where to focus support.
Helen Sharp-Patterson, customer manager at Northumbrian Water Group, said that while channels are open for sharing data, suppliers maintain their own priority service registers and are not sharing data holistically. “We have got inconsistencies in our data, and as a result we have got many versions of the truth,” she warned.
Finally, Frank Sherlock, VP of international at session sponsors CallMiner, rounded off the talk with a video demonstration of how technology can be used to help agents assist consumers who are not forthcoming with their vulnerability.
Improving services for customers
Start with those who could be left behind
As the UK recovers from the pandemic and negotiates the cost-of-living crisis, utilities are under more pressure than ever to deliver efficient services.
The final panel session on the Customers and Teams stage saw three speakers discuss what their companies were doing to push the envelope on service delivery.
Ian Cameron, director of customer service & innovation at UK Power Networks, spoke about the danger of some customers struggling to keep up with the energy transition. He suggested companies should look to test advice about net zero with these customers first. “If you start with those that will be left behind, everybody else will come along,” he said.
To achieve high levels of customer satisfaction, it is important to create a high-performance contact centre culture, explained United Utilities’ billing customer services manager, Alison Heap.
Heap described initiatives the company has brought in to improve the working environment such as a ‘tell us’ scheme introduced by chief executive Louise Beardmore which allows employees to suggest changes to the organisation. These are presented in a ‘you said, we did’ format so employees can see suggestions have become reality.
Meanwhile Ancel Boucher, head of customer transformation at session sponsors Vyntelligence, said technology can be used to improve customer experience. Specifically, he pointed to how video can be used to diagnose problems, saving time and money for both consumers and their utility provider.
The power of accurate addressing
It’s not as straightforward as you might think
An address might seem a simple thing – a piece of data that is hard to get wrong. But attendees from water companies and energy retailers at Utility Week Live’s workshop, held in association with OS, know better. It soon became clear that there are multiple issues with holding and matching a single, accurate address for each property, and that those issues have knock-on ramifications right across the business and, most particularly, for customers.
One retailer shared an anecdotal instance where they had had four million customers, and 60 million versions of addresses for those customers. If a customer gives an address that doesn’t exactly match the one on the database, who is correct? Is a ground floor flat 1G, 1B or something else? And how does the utility decide? These were pressing questions for our attendees.
New developments were highlighted as one of the most challenging areas for accurate addressing, with the addresses initially created by developers and shared with utilities often subject to change as the development progresses. Likewise, change of tenancies can cause issues with prepay meters, where a new tenant simply carries on prepaying into the existing account without updating the retailer with their own details. This can cause vulnerabilities to be missed or lost in the system.
A single version of the truth
OS’s strategic product manager Richard Crump explained how the UPRN (unique property reference number) can help by offering a single version of the truth on addressing. Geoplace, working with Ordnance Survey and the Local Government Association, administers the UPRN system on behalf of local government. Each property in the country is given a UPRN upon creation, and that UPRN will never change throughout the property’s lifecycle. It will be recorded in a central database with the correct address. There is a role within each local authority called the address custodian, whose job it is to manage UPRNs for their area. If utilities, or other organisations, have access to authoritative addressing with the UPRN, they can use it to check and match the address.
Crump said: “Address lifecycle management remains a hot topic for our customers. Gaining a command of the address data inside an organisation can reap huge benefits from cost and process efficiencies as well as service-level improvements. Having UPRN-matched addresses is also the perfect launchpad into location analytics. The insight from understanding more about the places your customers live will help organisations serve their customers better and generate new growth opportunities.”