The Rise of BPM in the Utility Space

Greg Flay, Chief Technology Officer, Strategic Planning and Technology, Austin Energy
Greg Flay, Chief Technology Officer, Strategic Planning and Technology, Austin Energy

Greg Flay, Chief Technology Officer, Strategic Planning and Technology, Austin Energy

The BPM Imperative

The electric utility landscape is changing, and the change is coming so fast that utilities are challenged to keep up. The sector is implementing revolutionary changes to process management in order to adapt to a new consumer paradigm of “quick, easy, and cheap”, three words that are not typically associated with utilities. Fortunately for utilities, there are a number of tools and technologies that exist to help them on the journey to “quick, easy, and cheap.” These tools assist with all facets of business process management, including process definition and modeling, optimization and automation, measurement and control, as well as execution.

Process Mining: Revealing What We Actually Do

The classic starting point for business process management is the definition or modeling of current state business processes. Anyone who has had some experience at doing this knows that this can often result in a kind of tragicomedy as folks who have worked side-by-side for years will have different and sometimes contradictory understandings of the current state business process. Business process mining skips this often painful and awkward exercise by extracting information directly from application event and transaction logs to uncover the “real” process as executed, along with all of its many variants. Not only does this reduce the time required to define current state, it does not incorporate any observer bias.

  The only chance that the utility of the future can hope to attain “quick, easy, and cheap” is through better business process management, largely through the automation of what is currently manual  

There are three general use cases for process mining. Process discovery answers the basic question of how transactions actually flow through systems. What is the ideal process execution path and where do users stray from this path? Once an officially sanctioned process has been defined, process mining can be a tool for auditing compliance with this process and determine what exceptions occur and how. Lastly, the optimization capabilities of process mining tools can be leveraged to identify execution paths that are quicker or lower cost than current state.

An electric utility offers several areas ripe for process mining. With the high dollar amounts and long lead times typical within the utility sector, procurement can often be a focus area for improvement. Applying process mining tools to the purchasing system can identify process bottlenecks that lengthen procurement lead times unnecessarily or give rise to situations where costs associated with expedited shipping occur. In autility call center, applying process mining to customer and phone system logs can identify call paths, specifically escalations, which can result in poor customer experience. In the field, process mining of service work orders systems can help to identify errant process paths that could lead to longer work execution times and a resulting poor customer experience.

IoT-Enabled Process Automation: Bringing Faster and Cheaper to the Utility World

The rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) over the past decade has allowed utilities to automatebusiness processes based on information coming from field sensors as well as edge devices such as smart phones. In some cases, IoT can also be leveraged to send operational controls to field equipment to improve the cost and timeliness of operations.

A utility striving for high customer satisfaction must keep electricity prices low while and maintaining reliable service. One trend among utilities is the adoption of field devices such as voltage and current line sensors as well as fault transmitters and receivers to enable the implementation of advanced applications within their distribution management systems (DMS). Some of these advanced applications includeVolt/ VAROptimization (VVO), which seeks to optimize voltage and var flow by minimizing power consumptionwhile maintaining certain constraints such as voltage and power factor, Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR), which reduces energy consumption by reducing feeder voltage thereby reducing peak demand, losses, and system capacity requirements, as well as Fault Location, Isolation, Service Restoration (FLISR), which enables automation of elements of outage management processes, minimizing the extent of customer outages, allowing faster outage response, and improving overall distribution system reliability.

A second trend is greater use of customer-facing technologies such as smart meters and smart phones to achieve quick and easy. With the implementation of advanced two-way smart meters and associated advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), it is now possible to both connect and disconnect service remotely from a utility call center via the customer system leveraging the AMI. Adding ubiquitous smart phones to the landscape allows new offerings such as pay-as-you-go billing as well as two-way outage communication which enables customers to report outages, get outage updates,view outage maps, and receive estimated times of service restoration all without contacting the utility call center.

The Rise of the Bots: Robotic Process Automation

Process automation covers a wide spectrum from basic automation such as macros and scripts all the way to artificial general intelligence that completelymimics human thinking. The first steps up from macros and scripts include robotic desktop automation (RDA) and robotic process automation (RPA). RDAautomates routinefront-office tasks such as copying information between systems or filling out forms but still requires human initiation. RPA, on the other hand, automates routine back office tasks and does not require human intervention to initiate.

One utility has embarked on a ground breaking digital labor initiative over the last three years which has made use of RDA as well as RPA to achieve a savings of 40 full-time employees through the use of 25 robotic jobs.These forms of automation have impacted billing operations, customer call center operations, and credit in the areas of net energy metering, time-of-use rate changes, billing adjustments, move center exceptions, and management of the active collections queue.

The Road Ahead: What’s Next?

The old model of centralized nuclear and fossil fuel power plants delivering one-way power to consumers is disappearing with each new wind and solar farm, each new residential and community PV solar system, each new electric vehicle, and each new grid-attached battery. The electric grid has always been a complex system to manage – the new grid is becoming even more so. The only chance that the utility of the future can hope to attain “quick, easy, and cheap” is through better business process management, largely through the automation of what is currently manual. More extensive application of AI technologies, specifically in the areas of deep learning and machine learning drawing on real-time data streams, will ultimately be required to model, optimize, automate, execute, measure, and controlthese processes in the utility of the future. And the future is now.

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