Whether you’re a first-timer or seasoned veteran, customer, partner, or SAP leader, ASUG Best Practices: SAP for Utilities attendees gained information, insights, and some welcoming California rays over an energized—and energizing three-day conference late last month.

Michael O’Donnell, SAP National Vice President, Utilities, and Geoff Scott, ASUG CEO, launched the event, noting key topics and sessions. They called 1,100 attendees to action, education, and community.

“Everyone is moving to cloud… [yet]… there’s an existing grid, and that grid needs to continue to be secure, reliable,” O’Donnell said. “What do we need to do from [the] SAP perspective: we are focused on getting every utility we see to RISE with SAP, full stop… [with the] …security, flexibility, and ability to move as fast as we need to move.”

Whether directly from customers or through ASUG research, Scott encouraged utilities to explore RISE as well as to learn more about SAP sustainability solutions. “In addition to helping keep pace with tech challenges, it’s also about the health of our planet,” Scott said. “When I think about community, I think of us as customers, our partner community, and I think about SAP…. Sustainability seems to be on your minds…. We know you are all unique, yet you are not really competing with one another. We are a community.”

Customers Key on Electric Utility Panel

Picking up on O’Donnell and Scott’s themes, two customer executive panels—one from the electricity sector and a second from water—discussed their organization’s innovations, sustainability, business challenges, and progress.

Retha Hunsicker, Vice President, Customer Experience at Duke Energy (an SAP Innovation Award winner at the conference) said the energy giant has stepped up product pilots and increased feedback to determine “what’s important to customers, to incentivize behavior,” and gauge changing perceptions.

She cited one six-month swing this year where Duke customers named climate and clean energy as most important, only to see that issue slip to number three, replaced by energy affordability in importance.

Hunsicker also called for new partnerships to innovate, to transform to an ever-more resilience, and for more from SAP.

Acknowledging she looks to Duke’s SAP team for “a lot,” Husicker said,

‘Behind the Meter’

We need to understand what capabilities are available. What are we going to be doing together. We have to define what is good, what kind of tech will be behind the meter, how we will implement it, and when is it going to be mature enough to move from pilot to commercial and help us understand how you’ve innovated globally. Bring us your ideas, about how integrations can work.”

Policy and water purity discussions flowed during the second panel. Jeff Farney, Senior Vice President, Information Technology, Southwest Water, said his company is among the many utilities that worked on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law including low-income assistance, replacing aging infrastructure, and programs to improve water quality.

“These are complicated and serious problems to solve. Our government needs to have one policy (not one for each state) and not be punitive for water utilities,” Farney said.

Commenting on the industry’s dynamics, Neeru Sharma, American Water Senior Director-IT, Business Partnership & Delivery, noted the 50,000 water utilities in the U.S. reflect a market of large established players and smaller water and wastewater firms, with a “new infrastructure environment for investment that is big.

What Water Is and Isn’t

“Yet the key to being a good, customer-focused utility is you need to have a good footprint. You need deep expertise to manage challenges that come through–resilience to cybersecurity threats. You need presence in regulatory and legislative policy. Water is a water utility—it’s not oil and gas, and it’s not electric.”

Like the prior panel, the water utility leaders emphasized their sustainability initiatives. Metropolitan Utilities District Senior VP and CIO Sue Lobsiger said the strategy and everyday efforts are a “balancing act.”

As a governed public entity, rates must remain affordable, even as the company pursues its “big, very strategic focus on sustainability.” She described one SAP-based data analytics projects to assess “the age of pipes, materials of the pipe, the types of breaks to come up with a risk-based model for the likelihood and impact” of utility pipe breaks and repairs.

Utility of the Future

Yet another panel session, focused on the “Utility of the Future,” attendees learned of emerging technology practical applications as well as technology and customer-demand challenges.

Todd Inlander, Senior VP and CIO, Southern California Edison, noted the state’s progressive tendencies and pointed to the company’s recent “electrification of everything” white paper, a drive “that means many of the technologies we have today won’t scale.”

Even as the business drives toward that goal, “we’re also suffering from wildfires” that impact the grid and system reliability. Inlander described how machine learning tools are reducing the cost and improving results on utility tree-trimming and vegetation management work through automation and inspection.

Like Southern California Edison, Carl Young, Avangrid CIO, said his company uses ML to accomplish “targeted vegetation management. We do it based on reliability statistics to trim more accurately for better results.”

“It’s about getting real-life applications for these types of things, do a POC, drive through practical applications. Then a lot of this is a leap of faith,” Young added.

Constraints List

When asked about business constraints, Matt Thomas, Chief Innovation Officer, Centuri Group, Inc. said, “the number one constraint is personnel, labor shortages, qualified technical labor that wants to do the very dangerous and hard work that we need to do.

“Our technology is worthless if it’s not serving end customers or serving our technicians. When we introduce a new technology, I continue to do ride along with field foremen to see that they can use it.”

Avangrid’s Young agreed that “adoption is key” then added that regulation can constrain innovation.

“As a regulated industry, we work with rate cases and capital. We must, up front, define exactly what we’re going to do, and that doesn’t necessarily let us move fast,” Young noted.

ASUG will feature additional #SAP4U conference coverage in the coming weeks.

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