Stronger together: Partner ecosystems are the key to transformation of utilities

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Energy utilities are facing a sea change. The rise of electric vehicles, decentralization of generation, renewable energy resources, smart technologies, climate change, severe weather disruptions, and aging infrastructure is spurring the need for unprecedented changes across the industry. To keep up, energy utilities are quickly digitizing their networks. They are using the data gathered from the physical infrastructure to find new efficiencies. They are enabling better decision-making and improving their customers’ experience.

Two electrical engineers wearing hard hats use a laptop computer next to a transformer. An effective transformation of utilities requires the right partners and technology vendors.
An effective transformation of utilities requires the right partners and technology vendors.

But as they digitize, utilities will have to undergo a major re-design of their procedures and the way they operate before they can deliver the expected benefits. Proper data management, data quality, and data consistency are the foundations of an efficient digitization program.

This initial step requires upgrading field instruments, deploying telecom networks, and collecting, formatting, and processing terabytes (TB) of data. This alone may require tremendous focus, resources, and time. Turning paper maps created 80 years ago – now with decades of annotations – into accurate as-built geographic information systems (GIS) and digital twins may require millions of dollars and several years of effort.

But the TIME IS NOW! Utilities can no longer wait to address pressing megatrends. Digitization programs cannot last for decades anymore. Utilities must accelerate the speed and scale of change.

Transforming utilities faster with partners

There is only one way to effectively usher in digital transformation. It is by creating and leveraging an ecosystem of trusted partners with the expertise needed to optimize these changes.

Choosing the right partners and technology vendors will largely depend on the expertise required and their specific understanding of the utility domain.

There are three types of partnerships to consider that are well-positioned to help:

1) Implementation partnerships

The Information Technology (IT) industry has decades of experience in digitization. To digitize at scale and with the right speed, IT vendors assembled networks of partners. Take, for example, ERP and CRM. Large IT software companies like SAP and Salesforce opened part of their value chain to allow System Integrators to implement their solutions. These “partner-friendly” software stacks enabled System Integrators to deploy custom offers designed for the needs of their own customers.

Digitization in the Operations Technology (OT) space will only happen at the right scale and speed if similar System Integrator ecosystems are developed. And given the urgency of the energy transition and digitization of Utilities, this needs to accelerate. This is the only digitization ecosystem capable of reaching the far-reaching collection of network operators, from small to large.

To successfully transform and move at the right speed requires a couple of ingredients:

  • System Integrators must invest in OT domain knowledge. Large bench strength with good software expertise may be sufficient in the IT space. The OT space, however, deals with mission-critical, real-time operations. Understanding operational procedures is mandatory. It ensures compliance and safety rather than just the efficiency and productivity of the deployed solution. The customizations require a deep understanding of regulated processes with in-depth power engineering knowledge – not just a handful of high-flyers but OT domain expertise within the implementation team. This is often a major gap, especially for IT System Integrators willing to move into the OT space.
  • The mentality of Utilities must change. They must learn to deal with SIs directly, and not just technology vendors, for the implementation of digitization projects.

These are major evolutions. But this is what digitizing fast and at scale requires. Technology vendors alone will not have the implementation bandwidth or the reach to digitize quickly and scale all network operators.

Change requires understanding and trust. We frame this in Schneider Electric through our EcoXpert partner programs to identify, qualify, train, support, and certify our partners. Our dedicated program for grid digitization – the Smart Grid EcoXpert program – ensures they have the required knowledge to act as the extended arm of Schneider Electric in the OT space.

2) Technology partnerships

Providing state-of-the-art solutions to utilities often requires a blend of domain-specific application software that leverages deep utility expertise, using more generic technology platforms that cut across domains. Companies like Microsoft or Esri provide such platforms. Not only do they provide common, well-proven sets of services that allow accelerated development and implementation of solutions, but they also contribute to innovation when adapted to the utility space.

In its partnership with Microsoft, Schneider Electric experienced this firsthand. When delivering our cloud-based Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS), we leveraged the Azur cloud platform. Combining Schneider Electric’s deep domain expertise on DERMS with Microsoft’s extensive cloud experience proved to be a valuable, innovative technology partnership.

3) Offer partnerships

Another type of partnership is all about the co-creation of value. By integrating different offers, partners create value in several ways – the seamless continuum of processes, complementarity features, and so on. There is no ‘one size fits all,’ especially in the utility space, given the different regulatory environments and the specificities of different networks. The ecosystem of this New Energy landscape is also very dynamic, with new business models appearing and new ways to engage stakeholders from the Grid to Prosumers. A lot of technology from other sectors could be leveraged rather than reinvent the wheel. We must rally all expertise and competency to innovate and change the paradigm.

The time is NOW

Even though energy utilities are pressured to embrace digital transformation, this industry is complex and risk-averse. Utilities operate in a regulated operational and often economical context that may slow down change. But there is hope. We now see more agile utilities, keen to disrupt the paradigm, and keen to invest more in innovation. The time is now. We have no other choice. It is time to unlock partnerships across the board to go faster and broader.

Find out more about how our EcoXpert program received five stars from CRN for a seventh consecutive year, highlighting our ongoing commitment to nurturing enduring channel partnerships and to providing partners with the knowledge and tools required to drive growth, enhance sustainability, and accelerate digital transformation. 

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