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Utilities – Way forward for managing business operations after COVID-19 pandemic
Kamal Arora Associate General Manager | April 20, 2020
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In the last few weeks, our lives have changed in a way we would never have imagined. More than one-third of the world population is home quarantined, and many governments have already announced 3-4 weeks lockdowns, which could extend up to six months. The COVID19 pandemic has been the driver for these measures. Utilities, being the top quartile of critical infrastructure sectors, are at the forefront of disruptions, and the magnitude and breadth of the present crisis are testing the limits of their daily operations. They must operate in firefighting mode to keep lights on for the hospitals and their customers.

These are the areas where utilities are facing challenges to carry out their BAU operations during the countrywide lockdowns:

  • Today's process requires rolling of truck, field crew walk under power lines to inspect
  • Field workforce shortage to carry out critical maintenance and operations
  • Managing business teams for responding to customer's queries and complaints
  • Health and safety of the field technicians and workforce managing their network  
  • Managing remote operations for their control centers
  • Re-engineering demand forecast in the new world. E.g., Italy saw an 8.1 percent week-on-week decrease in energy demand after lockdown

Utilities are equipped to handle emergencies caused by variables such as weather, arson, etc. But this emergency adds distinctive twists, including the potential of widespread quarantines, workforce disruptions, and travel restrictions that may complicate previously tested continuity plans. Utilities may need to build added flexibility into the already robust business-continuity capabilities that they have demonstrated during past emergencies. Since these firms enable the generation and/or delivery of electricity, natural gas, and water to customers, their service must remain dependable and consistent, even if a health emergency severely limits the number of employees and contractors who are able to work.

In my view utilities must consider the following elements in their core strategy for their future growth as well as better managing the emergency condition:

Optimized and Interrupted Business Operations – Retail/Supplier and Distribution (Electricity, Gas, & Water)

  • Chatbot-driven Contact Centers:  For employee health and safety, utilities must make full use of data analytics (AI/ML) to build intelligent chatbots for responding to customer queries and complaints. In a pandemic situation like COVID-19, utilities can neither compromise the employee's health nor customer service. So a dedicated approach to machine-based customer service through chatbots will definitely benefit both. These chatbots can be ramped up or down easily depending upon the business needs in no time.
  • Hyper-personalization: People have the tendency to panic during a crisis situation, and with the government announcing lockdown, there is a surge in stocking up daily essentials. Customer call inflow to utilities has increased drastically just to enquire basic queries such as an outstanding bill, supply related panic questions. At the same time, call-center agents' attendance in office has reduced due to health emergency. If utilities had an Omni-channel reach via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. for responding to queries and all notifications, this inflow or panic could have been handled better. Hyper-personalized experience strategy help utilities to keep connected with customers 24*7 and achieve bigger goals such as increased usage of green energy and controlling demand response.

  Maintenance and Operations- Electric, Gas, and Water Network

  • LIDAR-based Inspections: We should not send technicians to carry out inspections, which can be easily carried out by machines running 24*7. In the crisis, drone based maintenance strategy can easily carry out the remote periodic and ad-hoc inspection required by utilities to combat any operational failure. Video and Image analytics should become the core of utilities strategy going forward.
  • Robots as a workforce: It is common practice in the water industry to deploy robots for collecting vital data – such as flow- pressure, corrosion, etc. We do see the possibility of robots programmed to carry out maintenance activities in remote areas guided by SME sitting in their houses and anywhere in the world using AR/VR technology. This guided maintenance can make the life of the field technician easy with no panic during an emergency and tackle the current aging workforce challenge. This will also help to digitize the learning and experience of an expert workforce who is on the verge of retirement.
  • Remote Control Centre: A futuristic IoT strategy should be included in their digital journey to decrease the load on the workforce operating from the control center. A dedicated platform/solution to remotely capture real-time asset health and generate notification using sensors and other devices for predictive failures. Many smart grid technologies such as advanced meter at the customer level to enable automatic outage detection and service restoration, sensors, and controls on the distribution system to enable rapid detection, isolation, and restoration of service at the circuit and substation levels to improve the grid resilience should be considered. This will facilitate operators to operate and collaborate in a decentralized manner without any impact on business.

Utilities’ strategy today is experiencing disruption of all kinds, which we could have never imagined. Every disruption is an opportunity for out-of-the-box thinking to bring innovative solutions for the greater good. It is the best time for utilities to work on the digital strategy long term goals such as decarbonization and sustainable development, which will be valued by their customers, shareholders, regulators, and employees for years to come.