Automation – the key to unlocking the future of the energy industry

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by Simon Vardy, Accenture’s strategy lead for utilities in Australia and New Zealand.

The automation of processes within the energy industry is already having a profound effect on how we operate, and the impact of automation will only continue to grow in the future.

Here, we take a look at how Australian energy businesses can take advantage of the rapid march of technology, and ensure they’re not left behind.

Reliability, affordability and regaining consumer trust will drive the agenda for the Australian energy industry in 2019, a response dictated by consumer demand for fair electricity costs and the unstoppable trend towards integrating renewable energy.

With the spotlight firmly on them, the future is DARQ – that is, Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Extended Reality (ER) and Quantum Computing – a set of technologies required for success in the post-digital era. According to Accenture’s Technology Vision 2019 research, 89 per cent of Australian businesses are already experimenting with one or more of these DARQ technologies.

Australian energy providers must find new ways to improve business processes and create engaging and positive customer experiences, and the way out of the abyss is by utilising DARQ.

Automation is impacting the industry now

Of these technologies, AI ranked highest amongst Australian executives as having the greatest impact over the next three years (39 per cent); followed by quantum computing (21 per cent); DLT (18 per cent) and extended reality (19 per cent).

From the grid to the end consumer, automated technologies are well placed to transform the Australian energy industry. By harnessing the power of Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and AI, retailers can automate routine tasks in the front-office, back-office and enterprise function, as well as offering a more engaging experience for consumers.

AI and automation is already proving its ability to create real business value in the energy sector globally.

For example, Google announced it used AI-powered software to make energy produced by wind farms more viable. By using machine learning algorithms by its London-based subsidiary DeepMind, Google can now predict the wind output from the farms, and uses it for its green energy initiatives.

With the power of AI, Google can now schedule to set deliveries of energy output, which are more valuable to the grid than standard, non-time-based deliveries.  

Accenture’s research also found that consumers are equally open to receiving automated services from their energy provider, with 88 per cent of consumers saying that they are ready to use a digital agent, such as a chatbot powered by AI, if it was offered.

American Solar Power company, PowerScout, implemented a chatbot that aims to support the growing number of people exploring the potential of switching to cleaner energy sources, or even producing solar energy to power their own comes.

The chatbot is designed to assess the customers’ requirements and to connect them with contractors, providing them with optimal customer experiences and reducing backend processes.

So how can Australian energy retailers leverage automation to pivot to new ways of working? While there is no single approach to transform these organisations for the future, Accenture believes there are four key steps:

  • Set the automation strategy, leadership and governance

An automation roadmap is essential. The roadmap should be a plan to grow the business, incorporating AI and RPA as a critical enabler. As such, it is mandatory for leaders and strategic planners from across the business to have a good grasp of AI and RPA to transform existing business plans, define key decision points and guide appropriate investment decisions.

Teams should be integrated into strategic planning, program design and process excellence groups for iterative success.

  • Create an open automation culture

Corporate culture must adapt to the presence of its new employees that work with technologies such as AI and RPA. Humans and machines will be collaborating, teaching and learning from one another. This demands trust, openness and transparency, just as any co-working relationship.

Energy providers have a responsibility to explain the risks and opportunities that a hybrid workforce brings. But they can also shape the culture and guidelines that minimise those risks and maximise the opportunities.

  • Prove simple, pilot big

There is also a need to reduce risk by quickly validating and yielding identified business value on simple projects. Energy organisations must see what the dynamics of the team and organisation is like after successfully implementing automation.

Based on those lessons learned, optimise the more complex, larger-scale programs that have a greater return to increase the probability of success. Key lessons should drive understanding in areas including technology infrastructure needs, implementation costs and effort, organisational design and talent implications.

  • Iterate, solidify and scale

Australian energy retailers must apply lessons learned towards advancing strategy and culture and achieving goals. They need to consider how these capabilities can efficiently and sustainably be established as a standard.

Further, these organisations need to apply concepts externally and evaluate partnerships between providers and customers to examine how to extract value out of ecosystems.

Making the most out of automation

AI and RPA technologies have the potential to increase the accuracy of work, reduce the labour intensity of work and perform new analyses enabled by the ability to process and connect complex datasets.

Automation is key to drive agility and value. Through these opportunities, Australian energy providers can enable meaningful change in not only cost competitiveness but more importantly operational strength, which can enhance the company’s competitive position in the industry.

Now is the time to boldly embrace disruptive technologies to take advantage of disruption and shape their future. The potential value and growth that AI and RPA can bring when leveraged across the enterprise is a compelling proposition.

These technologies have the potential to redefine Australia’s energy industry, reshape their core business processes, transform customer experiences and establish entirely new business models. With automation, energy retailers will have the opportunity to offer a more engaged experience for consumers, with cost benefits to both customers and the business.

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