2019 Digital Operations study for energy Power and utilities
The challenges facing global utilities are in many ways existential: volatile
power prices, the need to invest in new generation models to deliver
distributive energy on decentralized grids to a wider group of commercial
and residential consumers, growing competition from technology-oriented
startups that are biting off bits of their traditional businesses, and the need
to reorient their sources and focus from fossil fuels to renewables.
If utilities are to confront these new business imperatives and threats, their strategies must include new technologies and smart implementation of digital systems and processes. (To explore more deeply how the megatrends of decarbonization, decentralization, and digitization are compelling power utility companies to evolve faster than ever before, see Global power strategies: The future of the utilities industry and the players that are driving market success.)
Yet although some utilities are aware of the importance of digitization, only a few of them have taken significant steps toward transforming their business operations with these new tools. According to the 2019 Digital Operations study for energy from Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting business, only 2 percent of utilities in the EMEA region (Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) could be ranked as Digital Champions (leaders in digitization), and 45 percent lag behind as Digital Novices. This outcome falls well below the results among EMEA chemicals companies and global oil and gas firms, which were also studied in the survey.
On the whole, utilities are only at the beginning of the digitization journey, and except for the relatively small number of Digital Champions, their technology initiatives tend to be limited, unadventurous, and risk averse. Functions most commonly digitized are support processes such as finance, distribution, and marketing. Less frequently targeted are core activities that could translate into real improvements in profit margins and efficiency, such as transmission, generation, trading, and sales.
The same high level of caution among utilities can be seen in the specific advanced and advancing technologies they are willing to try. Although about half of surveyed utilities said that they were adopting such basic and relatively widespread technologies as energy analytics, manufacturing execution systems, and cloud computing, only 5 percent said that they had actually implemented artificial intelligence applications, and another 9 percent were piloting such programs. That compares with 20 percent and 6 percent, respectively, for chemicals companies. Perhaps more telling, only a few utilities answering the survey said that they had considered some of the more innovative new technologies, such as blockchain, 3D printing, and virtual reality.
Perhaps the primary reason that utilities have fallen behind other industries is that until recently they have not had to focus on efficiency and process improvements. As a mostly protected, well regulated, and often monopolistic industry, utilities have in some cases benefited from not having to be overly responsive to performance demands from consumers or shareholders. Consequently, their corporate cultures have been leery of new technology and not receptive to the notions
of organizational creativity and flexibility. Only 27 percent of utilities executives participating in Strategy&’s survey described their business as innovative, and a mere 34 percent said that their organization had flat hierarchies to facilitate agile working and quick decision making. As the power industry changes and demands more agility from successful companies, utilities will likely have to adopt more technologically friendly corporate cultures.