Pressure is mounting for utilities to adapt to the two biggest challenges they have faced. “Invisible industries” suffer from an extreme skills shortage and, for electric utilities, the urgent need for transition away from fossil fuels requires a complete overhaul of a grid that was never intended to support this kind of use.
New talent, new skills and agile working methods are absolutely necessary to keep services running without disruption. But implementing entirely new operating practices and breathing new life into an industry that has remained unchanged for decades is no small feat. I spoke with Liana Ault at Nokia on how the digitization of the grid means updating the skills, mindsets and exploitative practices of the utility workforce to sustain change.
Decarbonization & digitization: a double threat
The energy landscape is changing rapidly: in the United Kingdom, renewable energy production overtook fossil fuels for the first time in 2019, and in the United States, President Biden laid out his plans for completely decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035. But this rapid shift to renewables is straining a grid designed for steady, on-demand production of fossil energy, and the technology involved in this transformation is rapidly disrupting the way utility workers do their jobs. “Decarbonization has really revolutionized the industry,” says Liana Ault, Head of Vertical, Utility Telco at Nokia, “we’ve moved on from the way we’ve always done it: large-scale generation and delivery of electricity. at the end mile – until now need to take care of two-way power flow, charging of electric vehicles or power cells at home, inconsistent power… All of this has an impact on the way engineers design the network and change all of our forecasts for day-to-day production and use. “
To address these challenges, electric utilities are using technology on an unprecedented scale with “millions of IoT devices monitoring exactly what’s going on with the grid,” Ault explains, and “giving engineers and technicians the skills needed to use AI and sift through all of that information, but supporting this digitization will require completely different skill sets than those traditionally important in an industry “heavy on engineering skills,” says Ault. “A lot of the skills required for project management, regulatory roles and things like that are not necessarily covered by traditional engineering disciplines,” Ault continues. “Now utilities are stepping back to ask themselves what type of skills they actually need to do this job. ”
This skills transformation is achieved as “a convergence in IT and OT [operational technology]”says Ault, complementing” the black and white mindset that engineering can entail “with part of the” much more agile “mindset of IT, to help utilities keep up with” more changes. in one year than in the past seventy. “More than just a change of mindset, IT and OT roles are literally converging to become more cross-functional, with” IT workers entering operational roles to understand how technology applies in practice and how best to increase workers “and operational workers adopting some of the skills and agility of IT people,” things like troubleshooting, thinking about the right questions to ask and the long-term effects of each decision – as well as an understanding of network technology as the foundation for everything we try to deliver, ”Ault explains.
New skills, new workers
While discussing ways to introduce electric utilities to new skills and new ways of working, Ault told me about Ameren, an electric company she worked with in 2017. “We had really bad information silos where people only understood their specific job,” says Ault. To address this, Ault and his associates “assembled six cross-functional teams” focused on specific goals such as digitization and the future of public service. Whereas previously, Ault describes how she was “only concerned with operations and IT from a field perspective” without necessarily considering the impact on the different departments, she explains that “working in this way has really improved the diversity of thinking and opened our eyes to the business as a whole – instead of just making decisions in isolation, we were able to examine how [our decisions] would first affect the bottom line or the prospect of the customer.
This type of cross-functional thinking is also being used to address the desperate need for new talent in the electric utility industry, with “roughly 70% of the workforce on the brink of retirement” in a utility. electricity with which Ault worked. This talent shortage “isn’t just about replacing people,” says Ault, “it’s about finding new ways of working” more effectively alongside technology. While internships and co-ops have always been “a big part of the recruitment process for public services,” this framework is also being updated to promote diversity of thought and attract different types of workers. “In some electric utilities, young people work in six-month increments in different departments,” says Ault, and others have implemented reverse mentoring, “getting young millennials to sit down with leaders and to respectfully question the way things have always been done ”. This strong focus on changing mindsets and questioning old processes fosters a more agile and higher-level way of working that public services will need for a successful digital transformation.
The roots of innovation
Beyond just implementing this type of thinking in the workplace, Ault suggests a change and more popular references. Bloom’s taxonomy, a hierarchical system that categorizes thinking skills from basic information recall to more complex assessment and judgment and analysis. “Schools and universities need to start reducing the time spent on low-level thinking and focusing more on higher-level skills such as assessment, analysis, synthesis – this is where the AI and technology can really help in the workplace, reducing the time humans have to spend on lower level thinking to leverage our higher level human skills, ”says Ault.
Apparently with that in mind, Nokia’s innovation hub in partnership with the University of Strathclyde focuses on the development of new technologies and new solutions to radically change the network. This hub also acts as a transatlantic virtual laboratory, which can attract diverse talents into public services. “Virtual power plants are a paradigm shift for the industry,” says Ault, “attracting software engineers into the industry is very difficult, so giving them a space to learn and explore in a less regulated environment is a huge deal. advantage. These virtual environments can also serve as a test bed to promote high-level collaboration and thinking, says Ault: “Software engineers and electrical engineers need to work closely together in a virtual power plant to accomplish what they want. want to accomplish… the industry needs the two types of people to work together to ask questions and find truly revolutionary solutions.
The utilities sector faces a more urgent digital transformation than perhaps any other industry, and for electric utilities, the challenges of updating skills and replacing a departing workforce. in retirement are compounded by the demand for a radically different way of delivering energy. Changing attitudes and attracting new workers to the industry is not easy, but Ault points to the theory that after just two weeks without electricity civilization as we know it cannot standSo the stakes are certainly high enough to demand such dramatic change on such a large scale.
Promoting collaboration between different schools of thought, bringing innovation and experimentation into public services as early as possible and introducing new working methods to challenge decades-old processes are all key weapons in this process. battle to upgrade skills and energize the electricity sector – though the victory will likely go unnoticed in this vital ‘invisible’ industry.