By Stephanie Nestor, Journalist, Utility magazine

At Digital Utilities 2022, three utility leaders from the water and energy sectors spoke about digitisation and how planning ahead will be instrumental to implementing new technologies and overcoming current network challenges.

The digital transformation of utilities has seen the energy and water sectors incorporate new technologies into their operations, but with more advances and changes in the future, this transition will require more than just innovation.

The panel Enhancing grids for a smart, connected utility future discussed this in detail with featured panellists Shaun Nesbitt, Chief Digital Information Officer, Urban Utilities; Marie Jordan, Executive General Manager of Networks, Transgrid; and Ash Vesali, Director Commercialisation, Iota Services.

Challenges facing the energy and water sectors

Australia’s energy and water sectors have both been impacted by recent changes in policy and environmental issues, with the three panellists agreeing that providing a sustainable future was the top priority. Ms Jordan said the biggest challenge for the energy sector is moving from fossil fuel power to a renewables-based sector.

“Our biggest challenge, actually for the whole of Australia, is this transition that we’re making from coal-fired, gas-fired, with a small amount of renewables, to really having renewables lead the portfolio of energy for the whole nation in the years to come,” Ms Jordan said.

Key planning is needed to ensure Australia’s transmission system can handle renewables. For the water sector, Mr Nesbitt said environmental concerns, such as climate change and unprecedented weather events, will make it harder to provide reliable and secure water to much of the country.

“It’s become obvious that we’ve got to do more with what we’ve already got, which is somewhat challenging.” “Overlay that with global warming and our inland regions are going to get hotter. Severe heat is going to get more extreme, and the frequency and duration of severe weather events are going to increase, as demonstrated by the recent floods,” Mr Nesbitt said.

For Mr Vesali, one of the challenges facing the water sector is that it has been reluctant to share data which would otherwise ensure improved connection and consistency across organisations. “Most of the infrastructure is interconnected more and more by the internet these days, and we are producing a lot more data,” Mr Vesali said.

“But, one challenge we are seeing is, how do we use that data and do we have the right data governance across the organisation?”

Alleviating grid pressure

When speaking about the challenges facing the energy sector, Ms Jordan said that looking forward and investing in new control room technologies will be key for future development.

She said Transgrid is currently attempting to model if its network can take on 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, even if the Australian energy system isn’t powered by 100 per cent renewables, there are times during the day where for an hour or even minutes, the system could be 100 per cent renewable.

“If we look at the forecast coming out of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), it’s going to be there. There will be points in the day, most likely at minimum demand, that we can supply New South Wales with 100 per cent renewables,” Ms Jordan said.

Ms Jordan said projects such as grid-forming batteries, synchronous condensers and hydro power would be key to ensuring system security.

Introducing new technologies

In the energy sector, implementing new technologies is all about having enough information to make informed and instantaneous decisions.

“If you look at the technology and where you’re headed, operating our power system, at the centre and core of that is not only making it reliable, but making it predictable and safe,” Ms Jordan said.

These technologies, such as databases, security systems, and digital 3D modelling open up utilities to new possibilities. At Urban Utilities, Mr Nesbitt said technologies such as IoT, robotics and virtual reality (VR) are playing key roles in the future of the water sector.

“We’ve got our traditional SCADA and OT technologies, which I don’t think they’re going to be replaced anytime soon, but I think the shift we’re seeing is around IoT,” Mr Nesbitt said.“This concept of being able to blanket the network with sensors that provide us with, not limitless data, but as much data as you can consume.

“The game changer for us is then cusing that data in a secure way to start visualising and planning our networks and our assets in a way that we’ve never been able to do before.” Mr Nesbitt said VR allows the community to connect more with what it is trying to achieve in delivering its services, and robotics are also having a major impact.

“Robotic process automation allows us to find ways of automating menial tasks or automating tasks that allow our people to lift into the high order thinking, planning and strategy as well,” Mr Nesbitt said.

Industry panel – enhancing grids for a smart, connected utility future. Left to right: Utility Editor Jessica Dickers, Ash Vesali, Shaun Nesbitt and Marie Jordan

Roadblocks to implementation

However, with these new technologies also comes challenges around bridging older and newer generations of workers, protecting data, and scalability. “Technology plays a really critical role in helping to skill the next generation of our workforce,” Mr Nesbitt said.

“We’re using technology now to allow people to interact with the built environment in a way that’s safe so that when they get to a particular environment, they’ve got the skills they need to complete the job.”

As more organisations use digital solutions to create databases and systems to share information, the need for standardisation and increased security to protect the data becomes more apparent.

Ms Jordan said that having come from the US just months ago, there were a lot more system technologies and protocols on real-time information sharing in control rooms, especially with the grid so interconnected and the generation so diverse.

“We do have some protocols in Australia for information sharing with AEMO, and the transmission service provider,” Ms Jordan said. “So I think, because of the nature of electricity flows across states, what is generated in New South Wales could easily be delivered in Queensland,

Victoria or South Australia, we do need to have a lot more real time control room tools to understand the stability and strength of the systems as the coal and gas fired generation retires. “We’ve seen that in the greening of the grid, it will become even more important to have real time situational awareness to manage the system.”

But for Mr Vesali, the standardisation of the industry and these technologies isn’t as straightforward as it seems. “You cannot standardise because the technology is moving so fast, but you can standardise some elements like how we capture and govern data across different IoT devices, and how we create more resilient security posture,” Mr Vesali said.

In terms of scalability, it’s imperative that utilities are equipped to handle the implementation of new technologies if they are to see the benefits of them. “There’s no point in picking up a new technology if we don’t have the right capability or we cannot scale it, as that will set us up for failure.

Success in implementing technologyled intervention requires greater collaboration within the industry to achieve synergies and access to a broad pool of digital talent,” Mr Vesali said.

Ms Jordan agreed, highlighting the need for planning ahead when implementing digitisation and automation. “I would say my prioritisation is control room situational awareness for our operators and using digital twins – making sure that you have that capability to model variable renewable generation into the future,” Ms Jordan said.

Moving forward with digitisation

The energy and water sectors can significantly benefit from new innovative technologies, but addressing the challenges around implementation requires a shift in mindset.

“The whole concept of digitalisation is in need of a bit of mindset shift, because if you look at it, utilities, whether it’s water or electricity, have been initially built to safeguard their assets and infrastructure, and minimise new risk,” Mr Vesali said.

“Digitisation is about increasing agility to sense opportunities and mobilise the team to respond through new innovations. “Having the right tools and technology is all good, but we need to have that mindset for our talent to adapt and embrace digital ways of working and to utilise those technologies.

This needs executive-led cultural shift across the organisation Mr Vesali said that the second focus area should be on ensuring utilities have the right modular architecture and have modernised their cloud environment to enable effortless onboarding of new emerging solutions, as they transition in their digital journey.

Finally, Mr Vesali highlighted the importance of starting small but having big ambition in mind. He said the digitisation needs to cover the entire organisation, however we can start on our digital ways of working in a single business domain where the shift could provide high value and cost saving to showcase.

Dealing with changing environments

As Australia and the world deals with climate change, transitioning to renewable energy, and emissions reduction efforts, there is both risk and enormous opportunity for energy and water utilities.

“I think we’re going to be challenged around the carbon neutral side of things,” Mr Nesbitt said. “Sewage treatment is quite an emitter, there’s a lot of methane gas and others that are bought off there. “But at the same time, it’s a great opportunity because a lot of the outputs of that treatment can become inputs into other industrial processes.

“At Urban Utilities, we’re embracing the circular economy and constantly exploring new opportunities to close the loop.” For the energy sector, it’s not just about developing renewable energy projects, but also about setting up transmission infrastructure so all areas can benefit from the transition to net zero and emissions reductions.

“The most important thing we can do is look at things like what New South Wales is doing with renewable energy zones, bringing a variety of renewables, planned and thoughtfully into different regions, and then getting the transmission infrastructure built to meet this rapid change,” Ms Jordan said.

“We don’t have the luxury of doing things in small scale little pieces, because, really, to make renewables work, you need to be able to cover a lot of geography for diversity and delivery. “So when it’s raining in one area, you’ve got sun in another. Snowy Hydro spinning its turbines and then wind energy coming off the New England Coast, all of that feeds into this portfolio approach to how to deliver a reliable renewable network.”

What do future grids look like?

With priorities for digitisation revolving around forward-thinking and embracing innovation, the panellists hope the future of utilities will be more open and information-driven.

“To be in a position to simplify the mechanics of buy, sell or exchange data across the ecosystem, that can really help us to make better decisions and reduce our physical asset investments,” Mr Vesali said.

Mr Nesbitt said data is the new asset as Urban Utilities looks to open data-sharing in its future. “Rather than spending money on capital, we’re actually using information to drive a lot of those decisions,” Mr Nesbitt said.

For energy, Ms Jordan said the sector should prioritise making good plans and delivering reliable, flexible and green energy, even if it takes longer than expected for the renewable transition.

“I know we can’t do it in six to 12 months, but the next six to 12 months can set us up to be able to do it in a cost-effective way,” Ms Jordan said.

Register for free to watch the Enhancing Grids for a Smart, Connected Utility Future panel at Digital Utilities 2022 on demand by visiting here.

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