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Our former utility CIO reveals a bit of your new energy future

We talk a lot, in this industry, about topics and concepts: blockchain, IoT, the shift to the cloud, grid modernization and growing customer demands. And these are all worthy themes to dissect and plan strategy around, for sure. But, there are people behind making blockchain a reality, connecting each bit of technology to smarter devices, smoothing the data flow to that cloud, fixing those interop problems with new grid hardware and thinking ahead to what customers will want tomorrow.

It’s time we talked about some of those people pushing those topics and concepts, making them a reality for utilities around the globe from here inside Oracle. And so, the 3Qs blog series was born.

For our inaugural 3Qs conversation, we sit down with Martin Dunlea, a Utilities Industry Strategist based in Dublin and ask him—as the name of this series hints at—three big questions.

 

How did you get involved in utility business, and what makes (and keeps) you passionate about it?

Dunlea: Having qualified as an engineer, my first involvement with the utilities industry was the early implementation of a GIS-based network management and modelling system. It gave me a great insight into how technology could be used to manage the unique challenges facing utilities in the design, operation and support of linear assets.

I then spent a number of year supporting a number of large network and infrastructure projects before taking up the position of CIO with a gas and electricity utility. I’ve now been with Oracle Utilities for 9 years.

As an industry, utilities are experiencing unprecedented challenges, some as a result of advances in technology and operational efficiencies. But it is the amount of external factors, influences and changes that are most challenging and continue to make it an incredibly interesting and innovative industry to work in. It would have been difficult 20 years ago to envisage how advances in renewable energies, connected technologies and advanced analytics could combine to fundamentally change the traditional energy delivery model. What we know for certain is that as technologies and solutions continue to mature, the final chapter on the future state of the utility business is far from complete.

 

What's your touchstone—the idea that you keep coming back to in this field—and how do you apply it to what you do every day? 

Dunlea: One idea I find fascinating is the progressive move towards self-power and the prospect that, in the future, off grid energy solutions will be a reality. Storage prices are dropping dramatically and with a growing demand for electric vehicles (EVs) and residential based solar panels, storage can now be deployed both on the grid or at an individual consumer’s home or business. This means that the idea of combining solar with storage to enable households to make and consume their own power on demand instead of exporting power to the grid is beginning to be a realistic option for customers.

This evolution towards consumer-managed “closed-loop energy systems” is an exciting development that has financial benefits for end users and significant challenges for the energy industry, which can expect even more disruption to the traditional business model and existing revenue streams.

If electricity prices continue to increase, then the momentum towards partial grid defection will only increase as well. And that presents more challenges for energy companies.

 

What's the top problem for utilities you work with today, and how do you advise they solve that problem?

Dunlea: Over the next 12 months, the biggest challenges for power and utility companies will be to build a comprehensive customer experience, drive operational efficiency and excellence, and embrace big data opportunities.

But rather than look on these as discreet, unrelated challenges, utilities would do well to embrace new technologies that can interpret consumption data, empower customers to manage their service and help utilities companies reshape their business models and their relationship with customers.

In the short term, the most immediate challenge for utilities is how quickly the traditional business model of distribution network management is changing into something dramatically different. Consumers are turning to cheaper distributed energy generated from rooftop solar panels, wind turbines and diesel generators. A smart approach to these emerging business challenges that includes an effective data analytics strategy is essential to making the most of DERs and guaranteeing users a reliable energy supply. It provides utilities with dynamic, real-time data on flow conditions across the network to help them better manage the integration of distributed energy sources.

Finally, if utility companies embrace these operational changes, they will gain greater visibility into, and control over, the distributed energy resources that are increasingly being used in today’s energy market. From there, they can drive benefits for both prosumers and themselves.

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