Utility Analytics Week 2023: Data-Enabled Magic

Nathan Phillips and Connor Barrett, Zondits guests, 1/3/2024

There is a first time for everything and spending Halloween with utility analytics professionals on the Universal Studios campus was just such a first. Utility Analytics Institute’s Utility Analytics Week 2023 was set against the backdrop of a towering rendition of Hogwarts, fueled not by magic but by a carefully planned and orchestrated grid. The ornately lit spires, dark faux taverns, and the characters in wizard robes kept us in awe of the challenges we face balancing the priorities of the energy industry through the lens of its data.

The panel presentations and exhibits at this year’s event were evenly split between promoting analytics offerings to improve the utility end-user experience and leveraging analytics to manage the electric grid more effectively. Despite the word cloud shown to us at the conference kickoff focusing on data quality, location, and governance, two topics came up repeatedly: electric vehicles and vegetation management strategies for grid resilience.

Within the realm of electric vehicles, the conference shed light on the industry’s concerted efforts to enhance the identification of EV owners within utility service areas. Discussions delved into the seamless integration of advanced analytics solutions and collaborative initiatives with smart grid technologies to reveal complex patterns of EV ownership. The emphasis on identifying EV ownership centers on guiding users toward optimal charging practices and potentially providing them analytics on potential charging optimization. The active exchange of ideas around this topic showcased the industry’s dedication to elevating the EV charging experience for consumers, aligning with the overarching goal of facilitating widespread electric vehicle adoption.

The evolving landscape of grid planning associated with the rising tide of electric vehicle adoption was a consistent theme. A notable focus emerged on using analytics to strategically locate charging stations in areas of high traffic, potential use, and the promotion of fair and equal access. We spoke with several attendees who were exploring analytics solutions that harness geospatial data and predictive modeling to work towards these goals. The seemingly mythical target here is not a unicorn, but optimally deploying charging infrastructure in response to the surging demand for electric transportation. These discussions highlighted the real desire to leverage data-driven solutions to steer the path of additional infrastructure for electric vehicles while fostering an approach that anticipates the needs of future EV users across diverse communities.

Beyond the additional load potential from electric vehicles, utilities and stakeholders were also keyed into strategies for more cost-effectively managing vegetation growth surrounding the countless miles of poles and wires throughout North America. The spurious tree, bush, or branch can present at best a minor service interruption for electric customers and at worst the risk of wildfires. We were surprised to learn that vegetation control can be the largest single line item in a utility’s budget.

The conventional approach for budgeting vegetation control has been to split a service territory’s poles and wires by the number of years it takes arborists to cover the miles before the vegetation grows back, i.e., a 5-year cycle where 1/5 of the territory is maintained each year. Alternative approaches presented include data-driven techniques that enable targeted management of the entire territory simultaneously.

One approach relies on lidar-equipped drones to provide enhanced imagery of grid corridors. The other data driven approach relies on high-resolution satellite imagery. Lidar is an acronym for light detection and ranging and uses laser technology for precise distance measurement. The lidar-enabled imagery enables highly precise measurements of distances between foliage and infrastructure to identify potential threats. Satellite imagery provides a similar means of flagging highest-likelihood failure points from vegetation over thousands of miles of poles and wires without an arborist leaving a vehicle.

Both approaches have their challenges. Lidar requires a drone and a control pilot to fly the spans before the data can be processed and distilled into targeted vegetation management strategies and tactics. Satellite imagery, on the other hand, has an existential threat from one of the primary risks it’s trying to mitigate: forest fires. As brought up during an anecdotal presentation this week, during a severe fire season, smoke can obscure the satellite imagery and change the windows utilities are able to capture these images, process them, plan, budget, and then eventually remove the vegetation on the ground.

Returning to Hogwarts and Universal Studios, the grit and determination of attendees throughout the conference hoping to solve these problems using the data we have at hand or wish to collect puts us in mind of the intrepid Ginny Weasley discussing her undeterrable brothers in the Order of the Phoenix. She says, “you start thinking anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve.” Using data to tackle our current obstacles surrounding EVs, or those tied to vegetation management, utility analytics professionals will require the nerve to try new techniques and learn from setbacks along the way.