What is COVID-19 teaching us about our energy in the future?
Following national lockdowns starting mid-March across many countries, operators of the most vital utilities – water, gas and electricity – have had to adapt their production and distribution activities to a whole new landscape. How to deliver uninterrupted service to customers, adjust to shifting/declining load patterns and provide bill relief for those affected by the pandemic. Here I examine this unprecedented situation and the modifications that utility companies are having to try to anticipate the long-term consequences.
One of the first consequences of the COVID-19 crisis was that energy consumption forecasts were thrown into complete disarray. Energy usage has fallen drastically in all the countries impacted by shelter-in-place orders. Most major industries, who are usually very heavy consumers, have been shut down, at the same time, there has been a huge explosion in energy use by private households as the vast majority of people have remained locked down. On the home front, demand has been abnormal because consumption patterns have been disrupted. Fortunately, some countries were further ahead than others in how they managed this crisis and were able to learn from each other. In France, for example, we were able to draw on Italy’s experiences, because they shared a great deal of information.
In normal times, energy forecasting models are essential for the effective operation of utility companies. Take the case of electricity. It cannot be stored (at least not in large quantities), so consumption data from household and business users, as well as meteorological information – such as the direction and speed of wind and water courses – enable the production and distribution of electricity to be adjusted from one day to the next, at a local level. The data collected throughout the energy value chain gives utility companies better visibility into overall consumption to help avoid situations such as power outages or shortages. Thanks to artificial intelligence, a huge amount of work has been done around predicting demand to ensure that forecasting models can adapt quickly. The crisis has strengthened our conviction that digital technologies relating to data are more and more essential today in the utilities sector.
Remote working for planning and production
From the trading floors where energy forecasts are analyzed to the control rooms of nuclear power plants all the way to interactions with consumers and customers, utility companies have had to react fast to keep production and distribution afloat throughout the energy value chain.
Remote working has been an option in some situations, and we’re witnessing rapid growth in the virtualization of business processes. For instance, Atos has worked with a number of customers to ensure continuity of service by digitally enabling their call centres for remote working. With the closure of shops and offices, customer relationship management has also had to be redesigned and adapted to consumers’ new needs. Implementing automated systems to manage changes in payment terms has enabled customers hardly hit by the crisis to spread the cost of their bills while still benefitting from the companies’ services.
This global crisis has made one thing abundantly clear: organizations that have made the move to digital systems have had a real advantage when it comes to transforming their business processes. Those who have managed their private, public and hybrid infrastructures more effectively will come out of this situation in better shape.
In some cases, remote working isn’t an option for utilities. For example, controlling a nuclear power plant only remotely is currently impossible. This means providing much greater protection to workers on the ground: the requirements for authorizing work permits are stricter, and when remote management of power stations reaches its natural limit, the teams visiting the site need, of course, to be provided with all the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment), including masks, gloves, visors and alcohol-based hand sanitisers.
What happens next?
In recent months, we have seen the price of a barrel of oil and a megawatt hour of electricity in Europe actually fall below zero. Energy companies are facing unprecedented uncertainty about their revenues, which could result in them limiting their technology investments. Before COVID-19, we were already starting to realize that equipping the sector with effective digital technologies is no longer optional. I really believe that moving to the cloud is becoming essential, because those businesses that have already started out on this journey have been able to adapt very fast to this extraordinary situation.
At a time when patterns of supply and demand are becoming less linear, it will be all about finding the fairest balance between production and consumption, between cost and investment, between fossil fuels and renewables.
Indeed, the need for predictability in energy models has been growing for a number of years now, especially when it comes to supporting the transition to renewables. The huge improvements in air quality in the regions that have been locked down means that the advocates of energy transition are gaining ground and their demands increasingly echoed by public opinion.
Data and artificial intelligence; Cloud; Digital transformation; Workplace; Environment; IoT & Edge; Cybersecurity; Automation
Energy & utilities