Think Smartgrids presented the first results of its research into the digital transformation of utilities on Tuesday evening in Paris, with Cosmo Tech CTO Thomas Lacroix joining DC Brain’s Benjamin de Buttet to explain why and how electricity utilities across Europe are transforming their businesses.

Hosted by Europe’s largest electricity Transmission System Operator (TSO), France’s RTE, a full house was welcomed by Think Smartgrids Managing Director Valérie-Anne Lencznar who introduced the evening’s first speaker, Think Smartgrids President and RTE Deputy CEO Olivier Grabette. Grabette recognized the diverse and international attendees including representatives of TSOs, DSOs, utility industry vendors, and technology firms from Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and India. He also highlighted the importance of a digital transformation for utilities seeking to respond to the increasing challenges of the industry including the impact of renewable energy on supply, storage of electric energy, and the rise of electric vehicles. Grabette then handed over to Think Smartgrids Vice President and Cosmo Tech CEO Hugues de Bantel to set the scene for the presentations ahead.

The Need to Transform

The Cosmo Tech co-founder began his remarks by reflecting on the notion of digital transformation. While he was sure that many in the audience were already engaged in digital transformation, he urged them to recall that this transformation is not so much about the technologies emerging but the necessity of change.

“When we talk about digital transformation,” he said, ”it is most important to keep the real focus not on the individual technologies that are impacting a business, but on how those new technologies can serve to adapt to a changing world, support new business models, and have a positive impact.”

De Bantel explained that digital transformation is no longer a choice or a strategy, but a necessity. He drew on the wise words of Albert Einstein who once remarked that ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’, and welcomed Lacroix and de Buttet to present the preliminary findings of their research into how exactly European utilities were addressing their own digital transformations.

Early Signs Are Good, But Work Remains

Lacroix and de Buttet explained that, as leaders of the Think Smartgrids Digital Transformation Working Group, they had conducted interviews with European TSOs, DSOs, and industry vendors to explore the extent to which utilities had progressed in their digital transformation. The pair explained that all of the utilities they had interviewed had made some progress with all having mounted at least one proof of concept (POC) project and some have of those POCs have already been implemented in production. Despite this movement, however, there remained significant work to do.

“The industry is interested in innovative solutions but they want these innovative solutions to be mature, field-tested, and have a strong track record of success,” explained Lacroix. “This paradox, related to the criticality of their business, reflects the difficulty to rapidly transform in the utilities sector, but it is clearly beginning to change.”

De Buttet added, “We concluded that the network operators have all become aware of the value to look for in their data, particularly on the use of flexibility or asset management, but they have not yet integrated all organizational impacts.”

Some regions of Europe appear to be progressing faster than others, with the Nordics identified as a region that is advancing on its transformation with greater speed than elsewhere. Yet even in the north of Europe there remained some discord as to how to get that transformation started.

“Apart from Asset Management and Flexibility, there is no single use-case that clearly stands out from others as consistently ‘first in line’ for utilities to address,” said Lacroix. “This is both evidence of the scale of the transformation ahead of utilities, and the diversity of approaches to that transformation.”

The 2 leaders of the group closed their presentations by insisting on the fact that utilities must be clear about why they want to transform, what they need to transform, and how they are going to do it. There is already sufficient data to initiate their transformation and to transition from multiple POCs to Proof of Value and Industrialisation.

The final results of the Think Smartgrids Working Group will be published in a White Paper at European Utility Week in Vienna, Austria, in November.

Transformation in North America

De Bantel next introduced Brandon Force from Nokia Software IoT who offered attendees a glimpse into the ways in which US and Canadian utilities are embracing their own digital transformation. Drawing on two case studies, Force demonstrated that early, tangible successes can lead to increased engagement with digital technologies.

Force’s first case study involved a renewable energy producer facing operations challenges and seeking to decrease OPEX expenses associated with planning maintenance tasks. A digital planning solution that sought to cut 15 minutes a day from management planning tasks instead delivered an average 30 minute saving per daily planning session, saving thousands of person-hours and optimizing the maintenance of the producers ten thousand wind turbines.

A second case study of a Canadian utility allowed Force to demonstrate how a successful digital solution for one part of a utility – in this case, optimizing the deployment and transit of asset maintenance crews – could encourage utilities to pursue transformation elsewhere. If a clear return on investment (ROI) could be demonstrated to external stakeholders and regulators, utilities were far more keen to move towards greater and deeper transformation.

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