How the Covid-19 pandemic is driving positive change across the energy industry

It has been widely reported that Covid-19 lockdown restrictions have hit energy consumption and industry revenues. But few have noted that Covid-19 has also precipitated a parallel and positive transformation of the energy industry. Christian Wirth, general manager, Europe & Asia at IQGeo, explores how ‘work-from-home’ policies, travel restrictions, and staff reductions have all accelerated a long-overdue digital transformation of utilities.

Cumulatively, we are witnessing a democratisation and decentralisation of energy data and decision-making that will result in more agile, adaptable, and ‘smart’ energy networks, with more proactive and even predictive customer service and grid management.

These are just some of the recent permanent shifts in energy grid management spurred by Covid-19 restrictions and how they are contributing to the modernisation and digital transformation of the energy industry.

A remote workforce

The rise of remote working and office closures has accelerated the opening up of energy network data to the wider workforce. Many companies previously used centralised, ‘closed’ network maps, paper-based processes, and applications accessible only to specialist cartographers, creating a ‘data gap’ between workers in the office and the field.

Less frequent trips to the office means this information needs to be digitalised and dispersed across the field workforce to enable field technicians to find up-to-date information on the position and condition of nearby network assets.

We are increasingly seeing geospatial data on network assets being made available to employees on mobile and even personal devices and employees managing network assets from homes or hotel rooms. There are technicians that now attend call-outs using personal devices without even visiting central offices.

Some companies are allowing workers to monitor and manage outages and run geospatial network applications from home or anywhere in the field. Technicians now use mobile apps and Google Maps technology to rapidly view critical network information, and for greater situational awareness to assess damage in the field.

This makes it simple for field technicians and construction teams to find unfamiliar locations and nearby assets, enabling them to target repairs efficiently and effectively.

Virtual workforce collaboration tools are also being used to create close and more cohesive remote workforces. For example, a worker could use a mobile app to find a recently damaged pipe and then use virtual collaboration software to allow other engineers to remotely view the damage, suggest repairs, and assess tool requirements.

Organisational transformation

The use of technology to facilitate a decentralised remote workforce has led to a parallel digital decentralisation of data.

The key to this digital transformation is to create systems capable of absorbing knowledge from the ‘edges’ of an organisation and making this information available to all departments, employees, and even customers across all locations.

With an increasingly remote workforce, energy companies need remote and real-time visibility of their network assets. We are now seeing energy companies with the ability to capture, integrate, and share real-time geospatial network data from across the world.

Some companies are implementing geospatial systems drawing on live data from sensors or smartphone apps in the field to create a real-time overview and even ‘digital twin’ of their network accessible to technicians and call-centre staff.

This not only facilitates remote working but creates smarter, more predictive networks. It means everything from the location of customer call-outs to equipment defects can be instantly overlaid onto network geospatial data to identify the site and source of problems.

A real-time integrated overview means that lessons learned in one part of an organisation can also be quickly captured and cross-pollinated across the organisation. For example, data on how a cold spell affected gas pipes in one area could be used to insulate pipes in all areas against future winter freezes.

 Smart customer service

The reduction in technicians and call-centre staff has seen energy companies pioneering smarter and more data-driven customer service to make limited human resources stretch further. These include innovations such as one-click payment, webchats, WhatsApp, and even self-service.

Smart geospatial data is also being merged with customer complaint data to proactively prevent incidents such as outages in particular areas and create more remote, targeted, and predictive maintenance of networks.

This is being incorporated with ‘open’ geospatial information systems updated in real-time by field workers on mobile apps so that call-centre staff can instantly see live, location-based information on recent repairs or upgrades.

Geospatial information systems capable of integrating data from multiple sources and making it instantly available in multiple places creates the possibility of holistic, responsive, data-driven customer service. A combination of location-based customer data and data from technicians in the field could drive smarter, more targeted, customer-centric network management.

Location-based data accessible to call-centre staff can be used to create more proactive, targeted customer support and offer informed responses to customer queries.

In future, geospatial data could even be made directly available to customers. For example, it could tell affected customers about areas that are due for an infrastructure repair or likely to be affected by a power outage and explain the remedial action being taken.

Data-driven and remote service not only helps make limited resources stretch further during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also creates smarter and more effective customer service in the long term.