The energy mix in the United States is changing dramatically. This is not news to anyone involved in the industry. Everyone knows that renewables are on the rise, coal is on the way out, and utilities are innovating in ways previously never imagined or needed. But how is this explosion of innovation and fresh ideas manifesting itself in the day-to-day life of energy providers?
Step into any fossil fuel plant in the country and you will experience a blast from the past, but only on the surface. Sure, rather than pneumatic controls you will see operators wandering around with tablets interfacing directly with their distributed control systems. Of course, you will notice far fewer operators than you would have seen pulling levers and turning valves in a 1950s coal-fired plant. It’s the actions these operators are taking that reveal the depth of forethought into plant operations as they relate to the changing energy mix and rise of digitalization.
With the advent of wide-scale data acquisition and management, the crunching of that data, and the insights derived, decision-making is happening much faster and with broader reaching implications. Now there is an infusion of venture capital and privatization in the energy industry. Naturally, there is an increasing focus on providing a return for those capital dollars, and you can start to appreciate risk aversion turning towards well-informed and strongly educated risk appreciation.
Those plant operators we spoke of earlier? They are not only operating the plant safely, with full knowledge of asset performance and a focus on reliability, but they are now pushing these fossil fuel plants past their designed limits to squeeze out every last megawatt and pound of steam. In some cases, energy providers are using the data and insights available at the push of a button (for simplicity’s sake –in reality it is a LOT more complicated) to maximize plant profitability at the expense of its health.
And with good reason: with ever more advanced tools and processes to evaluate a plant’s lifecycle, and an entire region’s energy mix if desired, leadership at utilities is now able to optimize production with an end date in mind. This mindset is a guiding light for utilities aiming to keep their assets operational and profitable with a pragmatic acknowledgment that change is coming, and for the better.
I tried to make it sound simple, but let’s be honest, these are complex decisions being made with even more complex data. Given the historically static and structured nature of the utility business, what could this mean for the transmission planners? What about the customer care and rate design teams? And we can’t forget about the renewable energy development group.
Well, it’s time to break out the sledgehammer and knock down some silos. Most executives in the utility industry agree this is the only way to achieve real innovation with fast, flexible, and optimal decision-making. Let’s examine some of these potential benefits:
But I challenge us to keep in mind the most essential cross-functional collaboration of all: leadership’s appreciation of cross-silo thinking, planning, and decision-making. Embracing this strategy will maximize results for their shareholders, customers, and the environment for the volatile changes we will be seeing in the coming decades.
As we continue marching forward with our eyes on transformation and sustainability, I would implore all of us to keep turning possibilities into reality, so that one day we eradicate the silos and make informed decisions, with complete information, for optimal results.
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