Tech-enabled Workforce Top of Mind at DistribuTech
Energy and utility providers are scrambling to differentiate services and provide better, more cost-efficient services to consumers. A big part of that effort will depend squarely on the ability to improve the way personnel in the field access and share a growing amount of data in real time.
That was the word on just about everyone’s lips at this year’s DistribuTech Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, Calif., where workforce-management innovations were in the spotlight throughout the three-day event. Mobility, data analytics and basic communications infrastructure are clearly top-of-mind for the majority of utilities being pushed to upgrade IT systems to better manage traditional operational concerns and respond to new challenges stemming from reshaped markets and rising customer expectations.
The DistribuTech show floor was replete with examples of latest smart grid and operations management wares — including intelligent controls, sensors, automation and visualization tools, and the latest in field service management gear and associated apps. The issue of targeting the utility workforce as part of a broader business-transformation strategy was brought into starkest relief, however, with the release of new research that demonstrates the role of the power-systems worker in responding to service requirements and providing greater integration with smart distribution systems.
The Strategic Directions: Smart Utility report from global engineering and consulting firm Black and Veatch shows utilities making slow but steady strides in modernizing their workforce technologies and the infrastructure that supports it.
“Rapid advances and convergence in technologies are arriving on the utility landscape just as regulatory changes, new financial pressures and opportunities, and the impacts of an aging workforce are being felt,” writes Robert Welch, vice president of operational technologies and analytics at Black and Veatch in Overland Park, Kansas. “These forces are combining to reshape how utilities deliver key infrastructure services.”
Black and Veatch researchers queried 721 utility, municipal, commercial, and community stakeholders, the majority of which represented electric and water utility organizations. They found that nearly 50 percent of water utility respondents considered their communications infrastructure obsolete or nearly so, with roughly a third of electric and combined utilities coming to the same conclusion.
More importantly, 38.4 percent of electric utilities and 60 percent of water utilities said they planned to upgrade their IT networking and communications infrastructures in order to support more advanced mobile workforce management tools. Such tools are needed both to improve overall operational efficiency as well as to deal with a shrinking field force and “a steady exodus of experienced utility workers,” the report states.
“Ultrafast networks speed actionable data about customer usage, nimbly anticipate user needs and resolve abnormalities to reduce outages or other service interruptions,” Welch added. “They also are becoming essential to managing a workforce that is getting older and increasingly pondering retirement in an improving economy.”
Part of the outflow of the utilities’ institutional knowledge is being addressed by automation, the researchers point out. Intelligent networks have created systems with lower demand for human assets like meter readers. But automation and intelligence can’t address every issue the utilities face. For that, an optimized workforce armed with the best mobile technology remains imperative for improving services delivery in an increasingly challenging environment.