The deployment of smart technologies, from artificial intelligence to energy storage and more, is driving the smart city and utility narrative to the point where data centres and cloud-based security are now part of the basic package to deliver growth and stability. However, what do less advanced cities and utilities need to know before investing in this technological drive? Here are the answers to some of the frequently asked questions.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2019. You can read the magazine's articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Smart cities are driven in part by a host of disruptive technologies; however, IoT platforms are a strategic component, which enhances streamlined service delivery. Without this aspect of the technological chain, the devices and solutions deployed would remain in isolation and unable to ‘talk to each other’. Sensors, applications, big data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) are part of the total integrated solution comprised of an array of devices and software or services to build a smart city.

In developed markets, smart cities are more easily able to progress; however, it is quite challenging where the infrastructure is not ready for such intelligent solutions. The good news is that this challenge for developing markets can be turned into an opportunity whereby implementation starts not only from the infrastructural foundation but includes investment in the most recent innovations. Less developed cities can use the lessons learned from matured markets to leapfrog the risks and challenges that come with this level of investment.

Let’s consider blockchain’s capacity to drive technological change. Is this a myth or is there a definite paradigm shift within the energy market?

The global blockchain industry in the energy market is anticipated to reach a market size of $6 billion over the next three years. The power segment is expected to hold the largest market share during the forecast period, as blockchain technology, in the power sector, plays a significant role in managing distributed energy resources and provides cities and utility companies with more costeffective and efficient solutions to record and process transactional data.

However, there are some restraining factors when it comes to adopting blockchain in the energy market as there are no clear regulatory standards to date on how the transactions should be written. The lack of policy has not stopped innovation, as current top technology players are actively engaged in new blockchain products by launching strategies through partnerships, expansions and R&D investments.

What is the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) in the functionality of self-healing grids?

The role of self-healing grids is mainly to anticipate faults, rapidly isolate the risk, and allow for real-time monitoring and reaction. While real-time monitoring and response will enable the system to tune itself into an ideal state, it is AI and predictive analysis that allows the network to anticipate any faults. This, in turn, enables the system to look for problems automatically that can cause larger disturbances. Rapid isolation of faults lets the platform separate the parts that experience failure from the rest of the system to avoid interruption and enable swift restoration.

Hereafter, due to these functions, a self-healing smart grid system plays an important role: it reduces power outages resulting from human errors and improves the overall utility system’s reliability. The self-healing grid market is expected to have a considerable number of developments and injected investments over the coming years due to continuous technological progression in the energy sector coupled with the growing demand for energy.

How are utilities using AI to improve overall customer service?

AI is a powerhouse when it comes to improving customer service in utilities. The sheer number of repetitive customer inquiries traditionally received by utilities has driven these companies to use AI in the automation of specific customer service problems; for example, billing inquiries, payments, change of address or personal details, reports of service interruption and outages, reports of hazardous situations, and new service connections.

Moreover, AI-based predictive analytics helps utilities to forecast high bills before the accounts are generated, and deliver personalised alerts to customers. AI also allows utilities to segment customers and automatically target specific segments for promotions or energy-savings tips, thereby reducing operational costs, and further cutting customers’ energy bills. Chatbots are another AI example that focuses on improving customer service as they learn from historical customer interactions. Chatbots can answer questions swiftly and more comprehensively than may be the case with a traditional customer service agent.

The majority of utilities’ investment in AI is directed at customer service. Utilities recognise that such investment can deliver the highest ROI in terms of improving speed and efficiency, enabling better data processing and analytics, and enhancing the overall customer experience.

What are the main challenges in collecting and analysing ‘big data’ and using the data to formulate strategies?

‘Big data’ is an extensive term for large and complicated datasets where traditional data processing applications are insufficient. The integration of these enormous data sets is quite complex. There are several challenges one can face during this integration; for example, methods of capturing and collecting the data from the data sources, how to cure the data, data analysis, data sharing and searching, data visualisation techniques, information privacy, and data storage.

The core elements of the big data platform are to handle the data in new ways as compared to the traditional relational database. Accuracy in managing big data will lead to more confident decision making and business strategy formulation, which will be based on precise information.

How is smart grid infrastructure changing the way utilities and cities manage sensors, SCADA, low voltage networks, and street lighting?

Smart grid infrastructure modernisation is driving an essential change in the way utilities deploy smarter equipment and automation. This modernisation is characterised by the continuous growth in their Operational Technology (OT) deployments; the consistent implementation of Information Technology (IT) by the utility to model, monitor, and manage its distribution system; and the integration of both their IT and OT networks.

Such an architecture, which accommodates IT/OT convergence, facilitates the management and synchronisation of interoperability across multiple vendors; allows rapid collection and analysis of massive quantities of data; and enables connectivity to and from millions of devices.

While utilities in developed economies in Europe and North America have over the past decade strengthened the execution of smart grid programmes, lack of adequate funding and poor planning have restricted adoption in developing regions, including the Middle East.

However, several governments in the Middle East realise the need to revolutionise their grid networks to align with international standards, address energy challenges and improve utility revenue collections. Countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Egypt have recently implemented reform policies and established mechanisms to provide funding towards energy modernisation. Such systems are paving the way for collaboration between local utilities, technology firms and governments with international smart grid vendors and early adopters. ESI

About the company

Elsewedy Electric is a leading provider of integrated energy solutions, pioneering the Middle Eastern and African market in the following sectors:

  • Industry: wires and cables, transformers and electrical products.
  • Construction: power generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, renewable energy, civil construction and infrastructure, water solutions, oil and gas, and transportation.
  • Technology: smart energy management, data centres, smart cities, artificial intelligence, cloud offering, big data analytics, and blockchain solutions.
  • Investments: independent power producers (IPPs), and utilities development.
  • Development: industrial, logistical, and commercial.

www.elsewedyelectric.com