To mitigate the effects of climate change, governments and organisations around the world are committing to become net-zero emission economies. Our own plan at Microsoft is to become carbon-negative by 2030. The UK government has set ambitious targets to be net-zero by 2030. At the same time, the National Grid Electricity Systems Operator (ESO) is aiming to operate a zero-carbon electricity system in Britain by 2025.
And organisations are responding to these ambitions. According to the ESO, 2020 was the greenest on record. And 2021 looks like it is readying to exceed this. In fact, in early April, almost 80 percent of the grid was powered from low-carbon sources.
We recently hosted a roundtable with Accenture and Utility Week. This brought together energy firms, regulators and partners to answer an important question: Are energy organisations doing enough now to meet these goals?
At the roundtable, topics included the need to build a cohesive roadmap that covers the entire energy system, taking advantage of digital technology, and change the way consumers interact with energy. Perhaps most importantly, the need to cross-collaborate internally and externally with other utilities, regulators and third-party tech providers was agreed. Here are the four most important topics that came out of the discussion:
1. Reduce silos and focus on collecting better data
Energy firms are collecting more and more data. But as the roundtable asked – are they collecting the right data?
Often in utility companies, like many industrial environments where systems have built up over time, data is siloed between departments. The billing department sees customer-centric data, while field operations see a different type. However, these silos can be barriers to an energy firm’s innovation and sustainability ambitions. By connecting data and reducing silos, utilities can ensure the right data is collected. This creates more visibility over energy demand, and even opens new business models to monetise data.
Organisations need to not only think about the present, but also the future. For example, data may be being collected around current methods of green energy consumption. But organisations must consider the type of data needed to take advantage of any possible future energy sources, such as geothermal. By futureproofing data, they will be in a better space to drive innovation and keep up with change at pace.
2. Build partnerships and share open data to reach net zero
Taking those data silos one step further – the net-zero carbon goals are our collective responsibility. So, to reach them, must involve collaboration across industries, governments, and regulators. Open data sharing was a big topic for the roundtable, highlighting the importance of multi-disciplinary action on it.
An open data plan reduces silos across companies and in the sector. This builds creating innovation, and allowing us to transition quickly to a low-carbon future. However, there are some challenges to this. Organisations are at different stages of their journey, with varying datasets, data governance strategies, and often using different data standards.
Energy firms and regulators need to work together to create standardised data formats. This is already in motion, with activities such as the Modernising Energy Data Access (MEDA) competition. Set up by Innovate UK and the Modernising Energy Data group, the aim is to help develop the concept of a Common Data Architecture (CDA) for the Energy Sector. As organisations move to the cloud, data standards and sharing in a secure way can be driven forward, leveraging AI and machine learning to deliver insights. For example, cross-industry partnerships could build digital twins of energy networks or even cities, gaining insights to optimise operations.
For example, we are working in collaboration with Accenture and Avanade to help energy firms such as SSE to reach the UK’s net-zero carbon goals. By using open data, the partnership aims to provide secure, consistent and accessible information. This will drive efficiency, support cross-industry innovation around new markets and improve asset performance and optimisation.
“The scale of the net zero challenge is so great and the significance of achieving it so important, we need all-hands-on-deck. The energy system – electricity in particular – must be completely decarbonised very quickly, so that trickier sectors like heat and transport can reach zero carbon emissions. The answer to all the technological, market and regulatory challenges that result, cannot possibly come from a single organisation or sector. Partnerships, like the one between Microsoft and Accenture, are essential in bringing together an electricity utility like SSE with business and digital technology transformation specialists,”
Rachel McEwen, Chief Sustainability Officer at SSE Renewables.
3. Personalise customer experiences
This cross-industry approach can not only help drive net-zero carbon, but better serve communities. By collecting and sharing the right data, energy demands can be better responded to. For example, a cold spell in the north might use more resources, so energy companies can work together to respond quickly. It can help organisations better identify vulnerable customers and help as, or even before, needed. Open data will also help identify disengaged users, creating more competition within the energy marketplace. Reducing silos internally and externally will ensure customer service teams can access insights to personalise customer experiences. As a result, they can respond better to customer’s needs.
Energy firms rolling out smart meters will collect better insights around energy usage. At the same time, it empowers customers to take control of their personal sustainability journey. A large percentage of users want smart homes, so long as it is at an acceptable price point. This is a great opportunity for energy companies to drive new value. By collaborating with other industries, this aim can be achieved, opening new revenue streams and data sources.
4. Reach net zero by supporting the new energy system
By 2030, the energy system will be more decentralised. There is expected to be more small-scale generation (some estimates as much as 30 times), such as solar and wind farms. Additionally, there’s an increase in domestic and grid storage, and a growth in renewable gas, more heat networks, heat pumps and hybrid generation. These changes could mean a shift to two-way systems that generate and store energy locally. This could see distribution networks becoming active managers, helping the system remain stable and secure. Enabling data sharing will make this transition smoother.
Moving to a new energy system means a need for more collaboration and partnerships. Also, organisations need to support employees with new skill sets. Everyone, from frontline workers to data teams, needs access to support and information to help drive new insights, workflows, and experiences for customers.
A chance to start building partnerships and achieve net zero
When it comes to net-zero, the roundtable participants agreed that the energy industry is thinking big. But there needs to be more action. The government and regulators need to incentivise and create policy that mandates the embedding of digital technology into projects, and encourages open data sharing. However, organisations shouldn’t sit back and wait. There is real opportunity to act now and drive cross-industry collaboration, build partnerships, support employees, and connect data silos to help drive the new energy system.
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About the authors
Rik leads Microsoft’s industry strategy across manufacturing, energy and resources in the UK. Responsibilities include working with the government and regulators, industry bodies, industry partners, and largest customers to ensure Microsoft enables sectoral needs. Rik sits on multiple industry boards for energy, manufacturing, research, digital twins and digital skills. His focus areas include the energy transition, sustainability, cyber security and digital technologies for operational environments.
Prior to Microsoft, Rik worked at Cisco for 13 years, with global lead roles in energy and resource industries, IoT and security, and digital transformation. He has been a member of multiple industry standards groups and consortia, is a published author, has written multiple industry white papers, and has spoken at conferences all over the world. He has an MBA in international leadership and is currently studying sustainability and green economies.
Rina leads several commercial businesses within Microsoft UK including Manufacturing, Utilities, Life Sciences and the Built Environment Sector. In this role, she is responsible for supporting customers to accelerate their digital transformation with Microsoft technologies. She supports the enablement of this through partnerships with integrators, regulators, government and industry bodies.
Rina has over 25 years’ experience in the IT industry. She has spent 14 of these in diverse roles across Microsoft. This included Chief of Staff for the UK CEO and EMEA President, where she was a core part of the cultural transformation of Microsoft as part of the broader transformation that Satya Nadella has led for the business.
Before joining Microsoft, Rina held several business development and marketing-related roles within smaller IT and start-up organisations. She lives in Wokingham with husband and enjoys the moments of being a mum again when her children visit from university.