“We don’t respect data. It’s not treated as an asset.”
Participants in this roundtable hosted by Utility Week, in association with Amazon Web Services (AWS), were clear that the utilities sector has a long way to go in gathering and utilising data.
The collection of senior figures responsible for asset strategies, innovation, business resilience and analytics across eight water and energy networks also agreed that greater collaboration was needed to unlock the potential of data in delivering on common goals, most notably decarbonisation.
Some underlined the fact that co-operation needs to extend beyond utilities, and even supply chains, to embrace other service providers, including those building the next generation of infrastructure.
A head of environment at one water company said companies such as AWS were in some ways at the same point the water sector was 150 years ago.
“You are building infrastructure that is going to be absolutely intrinsic to the way we live our lives. Just like the Victorians, you can’t be expected to know what the future will look like.
“But, when you look at what they did over a century ago, it was done with a substantial eye to the future.
“The question for information services is which parts are inevitably going to become redundant and which parts are still going to be in use in 100 years time?”
Bringing the debate back to the present century, the participants discussed the need to establish better understanding of how their assets are performing and how they can be optimised.
The head of analytics at an energy network pointed to the fact that low visibility of the low-voltage network was a significant barrier. Their company’s machine learning models are based on sensors in less than 10 per cent of substations, while they do not have access to consumption data.
They said: “We’re talking about a future in which you have a much wider group of actors connecting with the network. We’ve got to know that the network can take it but at the moment we don’t have that full visibility.”
Use what you’ve got
An asset strategy manager at another distribution network agreed that access to data was an issue but warned “some companies are seeking to get perfect data and they simply won’t get there”.
They added: “It’s not just about improving the data, it’s about convincing people at decision level that we can trust this data even if it isn’t perfect. Energy is a conservative industry, that’s natural when you’re dealing with critical infrastructure. But it means there’s a nervousness about making a decision when we’re only 70 per cent certain of the data.
“Decision-makers have to understand you don’t need to get your data perfect to make decisions.”
They added that the thinking around data needed to change at every level throughout utility companies.
“We’ll get better data by really clearly explaining to the people out there collecting the data why it’s so important. So, the job isn’t complete when you’ve gone and repaired something, it’s complete when you’ve put all the updated asset information into the system through your tablet.”
On the need to share data, one energy executive pointed out that the desire is there but the heavy restrictions around security made this incredibly difficult. However, they accepted that sharing innovations and new ways of working should be a priority.
A departmental head at a water company said collaboration had always been one of the sector’s strong points but expressed scepticism that the same level of cooperation would be possible with outside parties.
“Because we do not have that history of being in competition with each other, collaboration comes naturally to us. To the extent that it seems to surprise some people from other industries. I’m not sure that culture could be replicated in a directly competitive market.”
While collaboration may be an historic trend within the water sector, one asset director said that notions of whole-systems thinking had taken longer to embed in company cultures.
They said: “There are huge opportunities if we can step outside of some of the mindsets we’ve stuck with in the water sector in terms of looking at things in silos.
“As we work to reduce emissions from processes there are exciting new doors opening up all the time that really fundamentally change what a water company is and does. If you look at wastewater, you’ve got hydrogen production, that can power our fleets, you’ve got the potential to feed into district heating schemes, you’ve got the nutrients that are produced that can be put to another use, you can use the oxygen that’s created.”
A peer agreed, pointing to work done in the Netherlands more than a decade ago.
“This idea of turning a wastewater treatment plant into an actual energy factory and a renewable resource is game-changing.
“That synergistic symbiosis has happened. Waste is now being seen as something that can be exploited in other areas.”
Questions to answer
However, despite these opportunities, the water sector has a lot of questions to answer over the next nine years as it seeks to reach its ambitious goal of net zero.
As one company director put it: “My biggest concern is that in the water sector our carbon footprint starts when someone flushes their loo. The biggest challenge we have is our process emissions, from every sewer in every street in every corner of the country, through to our treatment processes.
“That is going to require a complete reinvigoration of our process emissions operations. The science is very embryonic. We don’t even really understand the size of the carbon footprint from our process emissions. There’s lots of research to understand that and that will inevitably see that figure for emissions grow in the short term.”
Another water sector executive said the challenge was to “get a common understanding of critical uncertainty”, adding: “How do you deal with that at a policy, regulatory and then business level? At the moment there’s no common understanding of what the plausible futures are and what we need to deal with.
“Our plans need to be stepping stones towards that future but we need to understand when to invest.
“Understanding what the building blocks are and what are the no-regrets investment is really important.”
The conversation ultimately came around again to the need for collaboration and the energy-water nexus.
As one water executive said: “We know we have to take the regulator, government and the public on a journey with us. There’s a lot of areas where we have complementary goals and can offer solutions to each other. If we can be more aligned it’s a much more powerful message that our decarbonisation journeys aren’t done is silos, that we’re all a part of a wider picture.”
Comment: James Houlton
UK Energy and Utilities Sector Leader, Amazon Web Services
“Collaboration and partnership is key in your net zero journey”
Amazon are passionate about sustainability and getting to net zero. We are taking action to target net zero carbon by 2040 and we understand the challenges that large utilities companies face.
We are on a path to powering our global operations with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025 (five years ahead of our original 2030 target) and in 2020, we became the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, reaching 65 per cent renewable energy across our business. We are taking a broad, science-based approach to reducing our own carbon emissions and improving efficiency across our operations. This includes Scope 1, 2 and 3 as defined by the GHG Protocol. We understand that it is scope 3 that provides the greatest challenge to utility companies.
At AWS, we want to build on this approach to help customers accelerate towards their net zero goals working together and create solutions that address specific industry challenges.
AWS understands that utility companies have some of the greatest challenges with reducing their carbon output. It is also clear that utilities are at the heart of the transition challenges we all face as we strive for a more sustainable decarbonised future. The transition to net zero will test every utility company’s ability to provide new services based on choice, transparency and flexibility.
There will be great opportunities for innovation but also many tough choices in the decades ahead including: serving the underserved in our communities; ensuring asset optimisation and resiliency; managing costs; guiding regulation; and meeting the ever-changing expectations of consumers. The transition to net zero is a complex endeavour, already under intense scrutiny.
One of the ways we are helping our customers is by connecting them to parts of our organisation that have a similar challenge; whether that is fleet management, powering assets or assessing alternative fuel sources.
We also work with customers and partners to innovate faster and further on the AWS cloud. Our partners have developed, and are building, cloud-based solutions that capture, analyse and report across all three scopes.
Amazon recognises that in order to get to net zero, utilities need deeper expertise in data visualisation, modelling and optimisation capabilities to support the transition. Organisations need to be able to constantly iterate, innovate and develop solutions as their thinking, goals and aspirations expand. We are helping our customer create the right culture, ways of working and operating models to achieve these important outcomes for a more sustainable a resilient future.
Only by working alongside and collaborating with our customers to bring these mechanisms, ways of working, cultural learning and enabling cloud technology together will we solve this, and other, complex but highly important industry challenges.
Amazon understands the challenges in targeting net zero in large utility organisations as we go through this ourselves, and test and learn. We have the tools and mechanisms to help our customers on this journey and want to help.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so please get in touch to discuss further – firstname.lastname@example.org.