Intelligent Technology in the Energy Utilities Arena
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Intelligent Technology in the Energy Utilities Arena

By Rob Bridge, CIO, Essential Energy

Rob Bridge, CIO, Essential Energy

From an early age, Rob Bridge was exposed to technology. Growing up in the UK, his mother was an early adopter of technology, investing in a microwave and one of the first video recorders, and later buying him one of the early model personal computers.

It set him on a course in technology that has taken his career across the UK, Europe, South-East Asia, the USA and Australia in industries spanning the end-to-end supply chain of oil and gas, telecommunications and now energy utilities. Currently CIO with Essential Energy, one of Australia’s largest electricity distribution networks, Rob’s experiences in the dynamic landscape of technology and energy have forged his insights into how the industry is changing and why it matters for customers.

“When I was at school, programming was laborious. You provided a computer with instructions by talking to it in a very basic language and the computer would methodically work through those instructions. Over time, the same code became more parameterised to prompt different and faster responses. The language and the interface at the heart of the computer evolved and started to become more humanlike.”

There is a difference, he says, between the physical innovation and the innovative coding behind it. Thomas Edison’s commercially practical, electrically powered light source of the 1800s fundamentally transformed how people worked, played and slept. It illuminated possibilities for home, healthcare and industry, but right up to the 1980s the light bulb was controlled by a simple premise of light on, light off.

"Next generation connectivity is already underway, with the race to build a global internet satellite platform"

“That was all the light bulb did. It responded to a surge or a loss of power, controlled by your finger on a switch, and it came on or went off accordingly. More recently, there has been a revolution in thought as much as technology. Now we think, ‘how can we innovate based on the needs of the consumer rather than the limitations of the technology available.’

“With integrated technology, the hardware and software work together. We can ask that light bulb to sense whether it is daylight or dark and to use its own logic to dim itself, determine its power output and power source. We can communicate with and control it directly or remotely, and we can change its purpose.”

For Rob, it is a simple example, but one that remains highly relevant for the energy industry. The light bulb has evolved from a practical necessity for shedding light, to an intelligent device connected by data networks. Similarly, electricity and renewable energy can be integrated into the world of digital technology to achieve outcomes that would have once been considered magical.

Just as computer functionality and connectivity has evolved, he says, so too has the focus on user experience. Customer expectations of technology as an enabler has grown and perceptive companies understand that. To meet those customer expectations and provide real value, he says, technology must enable us to do three things: automate, integrate, and innovate.

By automate I mean something we would normally do manually, things that we do many times a day and hundreds of times a week. There is no point automating something we do once a year. This is fundamental to reducing costs and becoming more productive, more efficient and more scalable as a business.

The next thing technology does is help us connect things together. Integrating assets or switches, cameras and sensors with mechanical functions allows people to operate computers and machines that do dangerous tasks in remote locations, removing people from high-risk sites.

“And computers also help us innovate, with businesses using innovation to differentiate from competitors.”

Rob points to one innovation at Essential Energy that has been particularly successful for the business: the use of drone technology to carry out aerial inspections of the electricity distribution network. As a cost-effective alternative to a helicopter, drones have a lower environmental impact, can be used in hostile or difficult-to-access environments, reduce safety risks and increase productivity.

“Rather than enlist the services of a helicopter, we train someone to fly one of our drones and understand the data that is collected to make data-driven business decisions. These efficiency and safety benefits all flow on to the customer in cost-to-serve and environmental savings.”

He points to how technology is helping energy companies improve the management of assets and assess their impact on the environment. Finding the right solution at the right investment is the challenge.

Minimising network charges while maintaining safety and reliability is the imperative and while many savvy energy users consider sustainability a key topic, most are primarily concerned with cost and security of supply.

“Consumers want reliability, they want power when they need it, and they want it to be affordable. I think what we’ll see more of in the future is an interdisciplinary approach: energy technology solutions that combine remote surveillance and control, data analysis tools and engineering science to generate, convert, distribute and store affordable, environmentally-sustainable energy.”

He sees the integration of physical assets to the digital world as bringing together an enormous collection of seemingly disparate information, but when that information is combined in real-time, it is a game-changer.

“We’re embedding the smarter use of analytics right across the business. It is one thing to gather the information, but the biggest change is using that data to drive decisions about our organization, our assets and our customers. Data analysis gives us insights into predictive algorithms so assets can be managed closer to their predictable life, and dynamic asset condition data helps us calibrate maintenance regimes.”

It is that application of data and analysis to the physical environment that Rob says is the real technology revolution for the energy industry. Essential Energy is investing in improved data networks to key locations, for example, to enhance connectivity and in turn, network management.

Next generation connectivity is already underway, with the race to build a global internet satellite platform. One company is planning to launch a series of more than 600 satellites, each the size of a washing machine. Spread in a low orbit around 1500 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, the goal is to provide connectivity across the globe. For Rob, that is an exciting evolutionary step for the industry.

Once we have full global internet connectivity to query and control every asset whilst identifying location and environmental conditions, we can run and optimize an entire network from a single location, improving safety, efficiency and the overall reliability of the service.

“If we combine all of this information and remotely control millions of assets across a sprawling geography, imagine the business decisions and efficiency we can drive, and the value we can ultimately pass on to the consumer.”

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