Why UK utilities should adopt remote operations

The UK’s lockdown response to COVID-19 has affected most industries, and in the case of utilities companies, a reduction in the workforce will add stress to a network of systems and devices that require regular maintenance. For many, this has been a stark wake-up call emphasising the need to build greater resiliency into operations. Software helped companies keep employees safe and operations running during the pandemic – now, digital operational technologies can also make utilities companies more resilient on a long-term basis. George Walker, managing director of Novotek UK and Ireland, explains.


Utilities such as water and power companies have habitually faced a maintenance conundrum, due to the complexities of asset networks and, in the case of water, an ageing infrastructure. Providing mission-critical services like electricity, water, and basic essentials cannot stop, even during the Covid-19 outbreak. Electric utilities are used to dealing with crises, like forest fires and floods, but the pandemic creates new challenges as they need to manage teams and machines remotely.


While they draw on past models to manage the predictability of demand and the consequences of disruption, they also need to enable social distancing rules for their people. As we all get used to working remotely, right now there is a large appetite for team collaboration tools, like video conferencing. However, most of these are IT tools to support collaboration with colleagues, not operations technology tools that industrial companies need to use to remotely operate, monitor or control equipment.


Regulated utilities businesses are not in the main affected by Covid-19, and water utilities for example have not seen any decline in demand. This will require restabilising the workforce and enabling it to work productively from safer remote locations.


Everybody is getting used to working from home now, but utility remote operation requires additionally compliant, industrial strength software, such as PTC’s Vuforia Chalk for long-distance service collaboration. Supply chains end up under strain because demand signals change. An enterprise view of supply and demand provides utilities with many more tools to manage the transition from disruption to stabilisation.


Springtime is typically when regulated utilities such as power generation will carry out planned maintenance, and outages or load shedding. They have to take assets off the grid to maintain and upgrade them, but obviously have to keep the grid running, because those winter heating loads that create demand on the electric supply are now going to give way to air-conditioning loads in the summer.


Dropping industrial demand for power during the Covid-19 pandemic, as much as it is a short-term problem, should be seen as an opportunity to temporarily take generating assets off the grid for maintenance and upgrade. That way power utilities can position themselves to come out stronger from the pandemic.  


Modern operations technology tools, such as those supplied by Novotek, allow for remote operations and monitoring of everything from entire electrical grids to individual machines, like a pump in a sewage pumping station. Keeping teams safe and equipment well maintained will become more challenging.


As the lockdown eases, it is time for utility companies to seriously consider and seize the opportunity to connect by remote software, to better manage these assets more easily and effectively. Remote and mobile operators may have secure and managed access to equivalent on-site HMI visualisations and essential operational controls regardless of HMI solutions in production.


Managed security and operational validation safeguards ensure that remote, mobile and on-site staff can work independently or together in a secure and compliant environment. Having such systems in place also supports continuity in the face of any future disruptions, while supporting operator efficiency on an ongoing basis.


Selecting the right IoT platform is a crucial first step. Novotek offers systems such as PTC’s ThingWorx, which is a single, purpose-built industrial IoT platform. Industrial market-leaders are using ThingWorx to develop feature-rich industrial IoT applications. With ThingWorx, utility operators can rapidly explore, prove and master the value of smart, connected operations and products, even if the organization is new to IoT.


As the UK emerges from lockdown, the ramifications of months with a reduced workforce and limited capacity for maintenance will hang over many utility companies. It’s important that remote access and monitoring tools are not only used as a temporary solution so companies can reap the benefits and increase resiliency to future disruptions.

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