The following is an excerpt from our ‘Reveal Hidden Value with Better Digital Tools to Gather, Analyze Utility Asset Data’ playbook. You can access the full playbook here.
When asset data is highly granular and efficiently gathered and processed, it intrinsically supports better accountability between utility departments, and also to regulators and customers. The asset inventory becomes a detailed audit trail, allowing utilities to respond quickly, completely, and confidently to inquiries.
Many utilities have assets that are 10, 30, or 50 years old. Often the only information they have about such assets, especially in remote locations, comes from paper maps or imprecise data derived from paper maps. Climate change and increasing development of housing and renewables along the urban-wildland interface has raised the stakes for the conditions of these assets — especially regarding their ability to withstand storms or fire (or to avoid starting fires), or to handle growing demand or variable power flows. From this perspective, detailed and accurate asset data becomes a foundational tool for resilience.
It also can support utility interests in lawsuits, audits, and inquiries from regulators, customers, media, and government. “Standardized, analyzed data about what a pole looked like at a certain point in time is a defensible record about whether that pole likely contributed to a fire,” said Tyler Collins, vice president of energy services at PrecisionHawk. “Checkmarks and handwritten notes on a form carried on a clipboard are harder to defend. This is about legal resilience, not just environmental resilience.”
Meanwhile, in utility executive suites, chief financial officers are looking ahead to which investments the utility should be making five or 10 years in the future, and how programs can impact the business value of the utility.
Utilities’ financial goals are constrained by the ratemaking process. They do not set their own rates; rather, regulators set rates to encourage better utility performance while protecting the interests of ratepayers and the public good. The main leverage utilities have to manage their profitability is controlling expenses. Intelligent, efficient collection and analysis of asset data can reduce the overhead costs of maintaining the grid, while also expanding grid flexibility to capitalize on new technologies and opportunities.
“Enhancing asset data and analysis is not just a technology or operations opportunity; it’s a business opportunity," said Collins. "It’s one of the best ways to increase the reliability metrics that every regulator watches closely. When your reliability scores are high and your safety record is strong, state commissions are more likely to approve your rate cases. That’s not just about keeping the lights on; it’s about strengthening corporate metrics.”
Rate-based capital projects to modernize the grid can be an excellent opportunity for utilities to both prove the value of robust systems to gather and analyze asset data, and to cover the cost. As a standalone operational expense, it might be challenging for utilities to fund the deployment of these tools. However, bundling data gathering and analysis into a strategic initiative to modernize the grid may open opportunities to implement systems that will have far-reaching, long-term enterprise benefits.
"Enhancing asset data and analysis is not just a technology or operations opportunity; it’s a business opportunity."
- TYLER COLLINS, VP OF ENERGY SERVICES AT PRECISIONHAWK
Once an intelligent asset data system is in place, it can help answer forward-looking questions, such as:
- What grid upgrades would be needed to replace most of our existing fossil fuel generation capacity with renewable energy?
- What kinds of new revenue-producing devices (such as 5G stations) can our existing poles feasibly accommodate?
- What non-wires options exist to expand grid capacity?
- Which grid problems must be solved with asset replacement vs. automation?
- What lessons are we learning from patterns of failures and outages that can guide our future choices for the design of our grid?
From this perspective, modernized data collections (which include drones, as well as advanced cameras and sensors such as LiDAR or thermal imagery) and AI algorithms are doing more than just looking at utility poles. They’re helping to shape the future vision of utilities.
In our playbook, Reveal Hidden Value with Better Digital Tools to Gather, Analyze Utility Asset Data, we’ll demonstrate how utilities can incorporate emerging technologies such as drones and artificial intelligence to reduce costs, improve accuracy, and prevent outages.