Navigant Research Blog

Consumers Are Ready for Upgraded Energy Platforms, and Utilities Should Oblige

— February 13, 2018

Utility managers in the US seeking to shake-up and modernize customer engagement have new evidence to support such efforts. A recent study supports the idea that many consumers are ready for an upgraded online platform to interact with their utility. The study, by Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, finds nearly half (48%) of respondents said they would use an online platform that combines current and historical household energy usage data, preference settings, utility (or third-party) programs and offers, and use this information to help better understand and manage their energy use.

According to respondents, the two most popular applications are energy rewards programs (52% probably or definitely would use) and energy manager tools (46%). The study authors call on energy market stakeholders to move beyond energy alone and imagine how new innovations from other industry sectors can be applied to their businesses. In other words, think and act more like Amazon.

The study also underscores the growing trend of increased spending by utilities on customer experience tools across the globe, as noted by my colleague, Michael Kelly, in his recent Navigant Research report, Customer Management and Experience Technologies. In this report, he notes how engagement has become a much more complex process for utilities, and exhorts them to take a more proactive approach, deploying across multiple channels in a holistic manner so customers experience a consistent set of information and tools, no matter how they engage.

Behind-the-Scenes Work Needed, Too

There is no question engagement tools should keep pace with current consumer expectations. The customer-facing online tools they see today are often not up to expectations.

That said, there is also work to be done on the backend, those behind-the-scenes processes that can speed up the mundane and create a better experience for customers. Duke Energy has taken such steps by adopting robotic process automation (RPA), a new method of processing customer information. In the past, the company would have to manually process hundreds of thousands of requests a year for starting, stopping, or transferring energy services. That could take 3 business days to simply turn around the request during a peak season. Now, by using RPA technology, Duke Energy processes such requests around-the-clock, and can immediately send a confirmation to a customer who is then assured that their request was received and that follow-on services have been scheduled. This step reduces friction in the system.

Whether it is improved customer-facing platforms or deploying backend system upgrades through new tools like RPA, these steps must be taken by utilities. The customers have come to expect them. It still boggles my mind, though, at how slow the shift to new digital tools is in the utility sector compared to others. But at least the movement is headed in the right direction.


Robots Reduce Risks for Utility Line Workers

— March 11, 2015

In 2014, Time magazine reported on the 2013 rankings of America’s most dangerous jobs. Electrical power line installers and repairers suffered 27 fatalities per 100,000 workers, making these the 7th most dangerous jobs in the country. While fatalities are down from around 30 to 50 annually in past years, according to T&D World magazine, the fatality rate is more than twice that of police officers and fireman. Fortunately, new technologies are expected to reduce these deaths in the coming years.

The most common cause of death to linemen is live, energized wires. T&D World also reports that new technologies used to maintain, repair, and rebuild lines and transmission equipment are now being developed and deployed. These technologies include a range of robotic devices that are designed to minimize risk to field employees while at the same time reducing operational costs and maintaining or improving transmission and distribution system reliability.

Almost Indestructible

With the speed of technical development and advances in artificial intelligence, new applications and technologies are certain to emerge in future years. For now, robotic grid technologies fall into three categories:

  • Line-suspended robots: Deployed over the last 8 years, these devices are designed to perform visual inspections and maintenance functions previously completed by utility linemen under sometimes dangerous conditions. They use cameras and specialized sensors for inspections, and can make basic repairs and adjustments to transmission lines, as well as other necessary applications. These robots can travel over and across live transmission system conductor lines under most conditions. Hydro Quebec has developed a line-suspended robotic device called LineScout that is being deployed on power lines where it has the capacity to cross obstacles. Another robotic device called LineROVer is used by the utility as a remotely operated vehicle for work on live overhead lines.
  • Ground-based robots: Designed to manipulate energized conductors remotely and execute tasks that are far too dangerous for linemen, these technologies have been in use for more than 10 years and are increasingly able to handle large, heavy conductors. These machines are best at tasks like maintenance, upgrades, and construction of transmission lines, performing jobs such as replacing structures and conductors and changing insulation.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): Often called drones, UAVs are designed for visual inspections of transmission line components, right-of-way (ROW) conditions, vegetation under the ROW, access into structures, landslides near structure footings, and other unusual conditions. You can read more about drones in my previous Navigant Research blog.

The spreading use of robotics could improve grid operations and, more importantly, reduce the danger to electrical power line installers and repairers. If that happens, linemen will soon drop out of the top 10 rankings of dangerous jobs.


Google Robots: More About the Patents Than the Products

— December 18, 2013

Google has quietly bought up more than eight bleeding-edge robotics companies in the last 6 months.  They include Bot and Dolly, a designer of robotic camera systems, Boston Dynamics, the creator of the famous Big Dog, and Industrial Perception, an machine learning engineering firm.  Clearly, the Mountain View, California-based search giant is planning a big move in robotics.  But it might not be what everyone is expecting.

While the head of the robot blitz, Andy Rubin, has declared that a Google robotics product will be available soon, that might end up being more of a sideshow than the real goal.  The prize for Google in this shopping spree is in the patents, not the people or the products.  That’s because, it’s my belief that, Google’s primary interest is in creating the operating system for the next generation of robots, not the robots themselves.

Rubin has always been obsessed with robot design.  In 2003 he chose the name for his photography software startup, Android Inc., as an homage to his obsession with robotics.  A year later, the company pivoted to a different business model: smartphone software.  Bought by Google in 2005, the platform that Rubin and his team created became the Android Operating System, a multibillion dollar enterprise, which is Google’s primary engine of profit growth today.

Android, Again

I believe that Rubin is returning to his original passion: creating a universal software platform for robotics.  If that is what he is doing, then it would make sense that Google’s executives and board of directors would fund it.  After all, the biggest obstacle to the ability of Android (the mobile phone OS) to completely take over the smartphone industry are the patents they don’t own that are required to make Android phones work.  Apple’s phones have some functional advantages that are protected by its patents.  And Microsoft gets more money from Google’s royalty payments for its smartphone patents than it gets from its own smartphone operating system.  This is all because Google was slightly late to the smartphone party.  It doesn’t want to be late to the next big thing.

A bigger clue as to where Google is going with this is in another of its robotic ventures: autonomous vehicles. That’s an area near and dear to our hearts here at Navigant Research because we published our first report on the topic, Autonomous Vehicles, in November. The search giant puzzled the world in 2010 when it divulged that it was experimenting with driverless cars. After the announcement, a few tittering articles were written about Google becoming a car company, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, Google has been hiring the brightest minds in the field of autonomous vehicles, getting them to invent things, and then salting away the patent trove. At some point, the income stream from those royalty payments will be considerable, all without Google ever having to learn how to bend steel.

So my best guess is that Google will utilize the talent it has acquired in the eight robotics company acquisitions (as well as many more that have probably been made that have so far gone unreported) to make a few flashy products.  Maybe it will be a disaster recovery robot or a land mine detection robot.  But the real treasure for the company will be sitting in the file cabinets of the U.S.  Patent and Trademark Office, where the more than 600 patents (according to my initial count) that go along with those acquired companies, will be sitting, waiting for this robotics thing to take off.


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