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Service delivery - a report from Utility Week Live

4th November 2019
Joe Bush

Steve Rogerson visits Utility Week Live to explore technology developments in electricity, gas and water delivery.

The idea of technology in the utility sector these days normally brings to mind smart meters and smart grids, the former having been in the news regularly as various projects around the world roll-out, albeit not always smoothly. The distribution and monitoring of electricity, gas and water have become vanguards for utility progress.

However, the reality is that this is just the surface of how technology is impacting the sector. Visitors to last month’s Utility Week Live at Birmingham’s NEC quickly discovered that technology is going much further, from automating road works through satellites checking vegetation infringement in solar farms to electric vehicles, not just for getting utility workers around but as a means of levelling out electricity demand.

Starting with the first of these, Scotia Gas Networks (SGN), a UK gas distributor, is working with New York company ULC Robotics on a project called Robotic Roadworks & Excavation System (RRES). The idea is to use robots to perform maintenance on gas pipelines underneath roads, reducing the amount of time roads are partially closed.

“Our problem is accessing our own infrastructure,” said Ollie Machan, Innovation Lead for the RRES project. “So we are using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) and a suite of sensors to enable autonomous, safe and efficient excavation and activity using robotic arm technology.”

This will speed up the process as computer vision can detect obstacles and reduce accidental damage to the infrastructure of other utilities.

“This is not a machine that someone will control, but one we can give a task and let it get on with it,” said Machan. “We are aiming for 2022.” He said he also believed this would bring big improvements in health and safety.

“Roadworks are not a safe activity,” he said. “There are cable strikes that put the operator in harm’s way. Pneumatic drills produce high vibrations that damage the users by killing the nerves in their hands. If you can’t put your own socks on when you are 45, something has gone wrong. That is what happens.”

Also using machine learning and AI is Earth-I, which is deploying an array of small satellites to produce colour video from space of the Earth’s surface. These are generating a vast amount of data, and AI is needed to sift through them for useful patterns. Some of this work has military applications, such as tracking aircraft, but the company wants to find more commercial activities.

“You can transfer the technology into the commercial domain,” said Paul Majmader, Commercial Director of Earth-I. “We are working with a number of utility companies. One idea is automated change detection in an area of land. We could map the entire UK and push out changes on a continual basis.”

One use for this is monitoring vegetation around solar farms and seeing where it is encroaching. Vegetation can seriously reduce the efficiency of a solar farm. Different vegetation patterns can also indicate that there might be a leak in an underground water pipe.

“We can also check wind farms to make sure they are pointing in the optimum direction,” said Majmader.

Electric vehicles

The take up of electric vehicles is still low. In the UK for example, they account for only 2.5% of new vehicle registrations. But it is a growing market and those in it believe they will cost about the same as a traditional car by the mid 2020s and after will be cheaper. The car makers are driving this, with new research on internal combustion engines having ceased across the board.

This is going to put a huge strain on the electricity networks, especially as much of the charging will take place in small time bands, for example, early evening as people arrive home from work and put the vehicle on charge.

On top of that, an infrastructure of charging stations must be built. Charging stations are already appearing but these are scratching the surface of what is needed if electric vehicles become more than half of the cars on the road, a realistic target within just a few years.

Improvements in battery technology are helping as they allow the range of vehicles to increase and speed up the charging time, while becoming cheaper.

“Battery pack costs are expected to halve by 2030,” said Jonathan Murray, Operations Director for the UK’s Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership. “We have seen them falling for the past decade. We will also see a quadrupling of energy and power density. And we are seeing huge growth in rapid-charging networks. They will have a huge impact on the load of electric grids.”

Professional services consultancy WSP is looking at the impact electric vehicles will have in London. These include advantages such as improved air quality and less noise.

“But there are challenges,” said Barny Evans from WSP. “One is the consumer experience. Users are not used to them and the charging task. There will also be a peak demand on the electricity system and that can cause problems for renewable sources of energy. And by 2040 or so, we will all have electric vehicles.”

The peak time for electric vehicle charging is 16.00 to 18.00. One idea is to offer incentives to users to move that to the middle of the night and using V2G (vehicle to grid) technology to let the vehicles pump surplus electricity back into the grid during the peak times.

Utilities research agency Impact Utilities investigated how consumers would react to that.

“A third of people are interested in V2G technology opportunities,” said Nicole McNab, Associate Director of Impact Utilities. “Two thirds said they would charge outside peak times if there was an incentive.”

The bad news from the survey was that 61% did not think the government was doing enough to encourage people to buy an electric vehicle and less than half thought it would hit its targets.

“Consumers have barriers to picking an electric vehicle,” she said. “Range is a problem as is a lack of charging infrastructure and cost. There is also a problem of how quiet they are. Will children hear an electric vehicle when they run out into the road?”

However, she said that as more second-hand electric vehicles come onto the market it would open up electric vehicles to more people.

Dealing with customers

Utilities are also looking at using technology to improve the way they interact with their customers. The problem is that people have a bad impression of technology with slow live chats and endless menus and queuing systems when calling a utility. It can be hard, if not impossible, to talk to a real person.

“People want to do things in different ways,” said Nicola Eaton Sawford, Director of Everything at consultancy Customer Whisperers. “There is no clear preference any more - it is about what people want at the moment.”

However, she said companies were IT led when it came to introducing technology rather than being customer led.

“Where it goes wrong is when the tech people have thought it through but the customer experience has not been thought through,” she said. “You have to make it easy for the customer.”

A good example was IVR (interactive voice response), which annoys more consumers than probably any other technology. “Customers hate bad IVR,” she said, “and 98% of the IVR that is out there is bad.”

The big difficulty here was highlighted by James Walker from complaints tool maker Resolver. He pointed out that people usually only interact with utility companies when something goes wrong and that is exactly when they don’t want an automated system.

And he said this happened with big companies who should excel in customer service. He gave the example of Virgin Atlantic, which scores in the top three for customer satisfaction, yet when he tried to change a flight booking using live chat it took 45 minutes.

AI, he said, worked well for simple issues but failed when things got more complex.

“If it is hard to get hold of people in your business, that is a bad starting point in engagement with the customer,” he said. “People should be involved in the process and technology should be there to support them.”

Conclusion

The utility industry is at the leading edge of new technologies from smart meters to V2G, from satellite imaging to robots fixing pipes, yet it often fails when it comes to using the latest innovations for customer service, partly because technology is being used to drive change rather than what customers want.

The way utilities deliver, monitor and bill their services is changing dramatically and for the good. Hopefully, customer service will soon follow.

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