First Utility is using technology to challenge the big six
When Bill Wilkins took on the joint roles of CIO and CTO at First Utility back in 2010, he was faced with two challenges: making the IT fit for purpose and also capable of scaling up as the business grew. The pilot platform First Utility originally deployed wasn’t performing as required, Wilkins explains, and he was asked to advise on the correct route to take. “The platform wasn't scaling and the company was looking at re-engineering it, so I presented the founders with a plan and was asked to implement it. And it's been a very exciting few years watching a concept with a small number of customers growing to the very large business is today with close to a million customers and £1billion in revenue,” Wilkins adds.
First Utility was started by a group of smart investors back in 2008, looking to replicate the success they had already achieved in the telco industry, building an independent company and offering customers a different proposition. Initially, the company was all about smart meters and accurate billing – relatively new concepts at the time – and it is still, primarily, a technology company, although the product it sells is energy.
As CIO and CTO, Wilkins says, he has two distinct roles. The CTO part of his role is about designing digital solutions around First Utility’s core energy proposition, and his CIO role is all about making sure that technology was never a barrier to what the company wanted to do from a business perspective. “When you go from nothing to a million households and from 30 employees to 1,400 employees, the scalability of the platform is a very important factor in how quickly you can grow. So the CIO part of my role is all about delivering that robust, secure, scale, fit-for-purpose business. The CTO part of my role is about positively evolving the way our customers engage with their energy consumption and also with us. So that it's more convenient for them, they get a better service experience and ultimately they end up staying longer with us,” Wilkins adds.
Research and development
And a pivotal part of this technology delivery is First Utility’s preference for investing in developing its own solutions. It has a Business Technology Group – carefully named by Wilkins to highlight that technology is at the core of the company and not just an internal service provider – that works collaboratively with and as peers of the other departments. “We have 203 technologists that work in the Business Technology Group so we invest quite heavily in building our own solutions rather than buying shrink-wrapped products from the marketplace.”
This focus on developing solutions in-house is partly the result of necessity, Wilkins says, as eight years ago there wasn’t much out there already for the relatively new independent energy sector. “There aren’t many specialist software vendors that deal with how you support retail energy in the UK – because we couldn't afford to go to SAP and buy their solution when we were a young company – so we had to hire a lot of smart software engineers and do a lot of that primary platform development ourselves.”
Keeping the software engineering team engaged has been key to enabling the flow of innovation, by providing regular research days and encouraging contribution to open source communities. A good example is the successful research and development project that resulted in natural language processing techniques that works out what a customer is asking for in an intelligent way. Wilkins adds: “It handles a good proportion of our inbound customer contact traffic now via mail but also in our mobile platform, so customers can chat to what they think is an agent but it is an artificial intelligence brain and it's available 24/7 helping fix a direct debit, find out what the last bill was or even submit a meter reading.”
It was important to Wilkins that Ask First, as this product is called, wasn’t seen by customers as a barrier to good service or as a deflection technique. He adds: “We wanted Ask First to actually answer the question, not just give back some standard request. So when we build a product, there is instrumentation inside the product to make sure we know who is using it and what questions they're asking. We also track customers through our digital platform and through our voice platform so we know if they subsequently call back in. This way we know that people that use Ask First have a very high percentage of satisfaction.”
When choosing whether to invest in its own solutions or to work with what the market has to offer, the deciding factor for Wilkins is whether First Utility can differentiate in some way. It has its own modern technology platform that uses very few third party technology players and therefore has a very low cost of ownership associated with it, but there are solutions that First Utility looks to external partners for. Wilkins adds: “Typically, if it's a generic requirement and we can access it at a decent price and we think the price scales reasonably with our business model then we will buy. We don't want to build for the sake of building.”
Building something bespoke together with carefully selected partners is also an option, and is what Wilkins decided to do with the customer billing platform when its own system was no longer able to cope with the company’s growth. “We scanned the market and we found a multi-product billing platform in Israel from a company called LogNet Systems. We had fewer than 50,000 customers at the time and LogNet was willing to work with us at our relatively small scale and treat us like a very important customer. So we then embarked on a three-year project to jointly develop a UK energy billing system - the system we're on today - and one that we're very confident will get us way up into the Big Six territories.”
The Big Six he is referring to, of course, are the major players in the UK’s energy market including British Gas and EDF. So what does Wilkins think sets First Utility apart from these giants? From a business perspective, he says, it is the technology platform. “The economics of our technology platform is far superior because it's more modern and with that comes cost advantage. Also, it follows that it is much more agile, much more nimble. Agile technical platforms enable agile businesses.”
The customer-facing My Energy platform, which was introduced in 2014, is another critical differentiator. It enables customers to understand their energy use in a way that can actually lead to savings. Wilkins says: “It shows you things like how you're consuming energy versus people in your neighbourhood. Whether you're more efficient or less efficient. It shows you how you might want to save energy through energy-saving calculators. It customises hints and tips for you. It shows you how your bill will change over the next six months based on your individual tariffs and individual consumption levels.”
It provides our customers tailored information that typically leads to a five percent reduction in energy use of those who sign up for it. Great for the customer and the planet – but also great for First Utility, as it is a popular tool. “It’s very clear from our analytics that the more time people spend on our digital platforms, the longer they stay with us and the happier they are with our service. Many companies would look at investing in something like My Energy, which is completely outside of the required for what you need to operate in the energy space, as a luxury, maybe not an appropriate use of investment. Actually, it's turned out to be as we believed it would be: a very good business investment.”
In 2015, video meter reading capability was added, which means a customer can simply hold the camera to the meter to submit a reading through the mobile app. “Although we led the introduction of residential smart meters, we are pragmatic and realise that not every UK household will have one soon,” adds Wilkins.
Another important area of focus for First Utility is optimising its business model. Wilkins explains: “Technology plays a lead role here, as you would expect. A less conventional approach is to risk using emerging technologies to reduce the footprint of expensive commercial software. An example here is the use of Cassandra and DataStaxx to upgrade our meter data management store – improving our scalability, performance whilst slashing our vendor costs.”
First Utility also makes use of a cloud-based voice platform from LiveOps by Unify Communications. “Not owning a large data centre allows us to focus on our business and allow other professional organisations use their economies of scale to improve our efficiency. We have gone beyond using services like Amazon and Google for compute power and storage and use cloud-platforms for one of our most critical applications – supporting the voice channel for our customer contact centre.”
Wilkins also made the decision to put Google Apps inside First Utility, firstly because as CIO, he didn’t want to manage the email infrastructure. He explains: “In the same way I don't want to manage the data centre or air conditioning or power supplies, as those things don't differentiate us and there are experts out there already. Amazon is a great example: it knows more about how to do efficient data centre management than I ever will. And Google knows more about email and delivering a web-scale infrastructure for collaboration.”
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.