Why the utilities industry is the ideal candidate for AI

Artificial intelligence is starting to make a significant impact on the utilities industry, with early adopters showing the art of the possible.

The landscape of utilities is evolving. Water and energy suppliers play a key role in the lives of billions of people worldwide, but for years, they haven’t felt the same pressure to innovate as other businesses. That’s largely down to a lack of competition and well-established monopolies – like the UK’s ‘Big Six’.

Now, things are changing. As customers expect more from their providers, and regulatory changes are adding a legal impetus to modernise, utilities of all sizes are looking for new ways to operate efficiently and deliver the services that customers need.

And AI is going to make all the difference.

Operational impacts at every level

In a recent research report titled Accelerating Competitive Advantage with AI, Microsoft identified AI adoption as a key opportunity for utilities providers to start exploring customised energy management.

With a new approach to service, providers can move away from simply providing access to water, gas or electricity, and start tailoring their systems to deliver utilities in sustainable ways, personalised to the end consumer.

But it’s not just in service delivery that AI can make all the difference. There are clear operational use cases for more intelligent systems, too:

  • Predictive maintenance: Utilities is an industry of large-scale assets with heavily mechanised systems (think wind turbines and water treatment works). If an asset goes down, it can turn into an expensive, lengthy service disruption. By running predictive models against real-time data from sensors in the infrastructure, providers can identify when a piece of equipment is starting to fail, and perform maintenance before it breaks.
  • Outage alerts: In the past, utilities providers often wouldn’t know that there was an outage until a customer got in touch – and then they couldn’t be sure if it was an isolated problem or a widespread issue. Now, data from sensors across the network can be analysed in real time using AI, enabling providers to assess the scale of the problem, and decide the best way for it to be fixed.
  • Yield optimisation: As the technology for AI in utilities matures, it’s opening up new opportunities for integration. Take GE’s Digital Wind Farm, for example. With software that captures sensor data about conditions at a wind turbine’s location, GE can use AI-powered modelling in a ‘digital twin’ of the turbine to find ways to increase its performance by up to 20%.
  • Enabling ‘prosumers’: As consumers take control of their own energy production and consumption with technologies like photovoltaic panels, many are producing more than they use – creating an opportunity to sell it back to the grid. With AI, utilities can offer an intelligent, automated service for matching these ‘prosumers’ with other consumers based on their energy needs.

According to the Microsoft report, half of all UK utilities employees are already using some form of AI in their everyday work – for automation, decision-making, or delivering enhanced customer experiences.

As the modernisation of utilities continues, providers will need to move beyond deploying AI in discrete pockets of the organisation, and think about how large-scale implementations can make a more significant difference.

AI can only make a difference with data

As with most emerging technologies, data is a key component in ensuring AI initiatives work. Without contextual information about the organisation, the infrastructure and the customer base, AI initiatives simply won’t have enough data to get off the ground.

And it’s not just the foundation, either – having reliable, useful streams of data feeding into AI systems is vital to deliver accurate, actionable insights in the long term.

Read more in our Data in Utilities white paper

The way utilities gather and use data will be instrumental to their success in the coming months and years – not just as a basis for AI initiatives, but to address a huge swathe of challenges, from regulatory compliance to infrastructure planning.

Our new white paper, Data: The key ingredient of utilities modernisation, explores the challenges facing UK utilities, and how data can be used to tackle them. Read it today and see how the latest tools and technologies can help utilities put their data to optimum use.