Utility companies may not seem an obvious home for innovation, but the shift to renewable energy means they need to be at the forefront of digital technologies. And that’s one reason why Enel was the first renewable supermajor to shift its IT infrastructure entirely to the cloud, a move that allowed the leading energy company to continue the company’s digitisation process.
Twenty years ago, that process began for Enel with smart meters. In 2001, the company began its Telegestore project, which aimed to replace all analogue meters connected to the low-voltage grid in Italy with digital meters, helping improve customer service and experience for 30 million end users while increasing efficiency for Enel.
This project was only the beginning and, in 2015, Enel unveiled a massive digital transformation project aimed at using modern technology to improve how the company generates and distributes power, as well as how it serves its customers.
That includes expanding its use of digital meters to 45 million installed today, while also turning to digital channels and virtual assistance to create an innovative customer experience and offer personalised services. On the production side, Enel is digitising generation plants using sensors and connectivity. “Digital tools, such as wearables, smart glasses and drones, help to optimise the effectiveness and the efficiency of field interventions,” says Carlo Bozzoli, Global Chief Information Officer at Enel.
Everything from drones to smart grids are made possible because of the cloud. Indeed, enabling such tools made Enel the first major utility in the world to bring all of its IT systems to the cloud in April 2019, when it closed its last physical data centre.
Alongside allowing Enel to trial cutting-edge technologies, the cloud system has doubled processing power and storage capacity, all while adding flexibility. Provisioning a new environment used to take weeks, and now takes just a few hours. Plus, a cloud-based infrastructure uses 16 per cent of the energy needed by traditional infrastructure, cutting CO2 emissions by an average of 88 per cent.
The cloud can even support Enel’s leadership in sustainable energy: digital tools and platforms help build renewable power plants more quickly, cut downtime by offering alerts when maintenance is needed, and allow more accurate forecasting of weather and market conditions, helping to maximise renewable production. “Enel has leveraged machine learning solutions to boost plant efficiency as well as to correlate weather patterns and wind turbine operation data to more accurately predict the power generated and optimise maintenance programmes,” says Bozzoli. “We also use machine learning to optimise the engineering and construction of new renewable plants, reducing the time-to-market and therefore anticipating the benefits of CO2-free generation and increasing generation output.”
New power plants are digital by design, so as to ensure they’re as efficient as possible while maintaining high availability. That’s supported by a “digital twin” – a virtual model of the plant that helps with modelling, forecasting and testing. “This tool allows us to not only analyse an asset’s past behaviours, or to react in real-time to events which can affect operation performance, but also to predict with the highest confidence its future performance, avoiding possible failures through machine learning techniques,” says Bozzoli.
Similarly, as the world’s largest international distribution system operator with more than 2,100,000 km of electrical lines and over one million substations in eight different countries, Enel uses advanced digital technologies to constantly improve the efficiency and reliability of its grids. As for its power plants, thanks to a Network Digital Twin made possible by advanced IoT, edge computing technologies as well as image recognition and real-time time-series analysis, Enel can develop applications to support smart maintenance and network planning.
In addition, digitisation such as smart meters helps balance demand-supply on the grid, as well as demand from customers, by smoothing power peaks for greater stability. “Digital is a crucial ingredient in the energy transition, as it enables the integration of more and more renewables into the whole electricity system, increases grid reliability and helps better manage energy demand,” says Bozzoli.
And that was just the beginning. As part of the next phase, dubbed “Beyond Cloud Computing”, Enel has built one of the largest virtualised networks in the world, connecting more than 1,000 sites on three continents and ten countries. Enel predicts that the idea will stretch into sites thanks to the Internet of Things and edge computing, building “phygital” environments that mix virtual and physical reality.
Enel’s vision for the future also aims to accelerate the evolution towards a platform-based company, leveraging on the definition of a unique Group IT architecture that allows faster and more efficient deployments of technologies which can be easily scaled throughout the whole organisation.
But what’s next isn’t easy to ascertain. To help build the future, rather than wait for it, Enel’s Innovation Hubs seek to capitalise on innovation by supporting startups with technology that has significant potential. Enel’s hubs are based in Brazil, Chile, Israel, Italy, Russia, Spain and the US, working with local investors, academics, government and more to find solutions to the most pressing problems of today. In the last five years, Enel has analysed more than 9,000 startups with over 300 collaborations activated, of which 60 are already scaled-up.
Inside Enel, another route to innovation in the digital space is offered by Enel X. This is the company’s advanced energy services business line, tasked with meeting the new needs of customers brought by the energy transition using the energy-as-a-service model. “By boosting the use of electric mobility and providing flexibility services, storage and energy efficiency solutions, we can contribute to make energy systems more smart, efficient and sustainable, while offering customers innovative products and services tailor-made to their needs,” says Bozzoli.
All of this work is possible because Enel took the lead and invested in digitisation as an important pillar of its strategic plan. “Digital tools and platforms are the enablers through which Enel can provide customers with the most advanced energy services,” adds Bozzoli.
–For more information, visit enel.com