Grid Modernization

Beyond the Buzzword: What it Really Means to Be a Digital Utility

There’s ample discussion about utilities becoming “digital.” What this means can differ from utility to utility, depending on what technology a utility already has in place, what kind of assets it controls, and other factors. The following is a summary of a discussion with Steve Selders, director, IT strategy and solution development, and Gary Vondrasek, manager, telecom sales and services, at JEA in Jacksonville, Florida.

Open data is the foundation for being a digital utility. If you are going to digitize an experience, either for a customer or for employees, it means that you are providing them with new data sources that they haven’t had previously.

The original use case for digitalization at JEA was its pole attachment inventory. The process used to be paper based and then switched to using tablets. By utilizing the tablets, we can see in real time when the contractor visits a pole and updates a record. The switch reduced the number of people involved and the time to conduct the inventory. It also saved us the time and resources spent printing system maps.

The change led to productivity gains for us and for the attachers. During the inventory, companies with attachments could access the information on their assets via a web portal, with read-only access on a phone or tablet, and determine if they want to do a field visit.

Three recent efforts underway to become more digital include an Internet of Things, or IoT, program; a data integration initiative; and mobilizing our workforce. 

IoT and Sensors

After an accident in 2016 took down a large transformer in a substation, which cost about $1 million to replace, JEA pulled its asset management team into a room to talk about how to make sure such an event doesn’t happen again. That generated an IoT program, which is really an effort to cut down on the man hours and windshield time it takes to do equipment inspections across our approximately 800-square-mile service territory. You can eliminate a lot — but not all — of those inspections if you have sensors that are continually monitoring a dozen different aspects of a transformer and reporting that data to a centralized location. Monitoring can include dissolved gas monitors, temperature on transformers, and transformer oil pressure.

For the water side of operations, we looked at sanitary sewer holes that are prone to overflows. And we explored if we can put monitors in manholes to tell us when they’re getting close to overflow. This allows for a remote manager to look at our fleet of IoT sensors and tell when a threshold has been eclipsed that requires us to take action.

Having a sensor collect data is one piece. The other part is figuring out how to build the necessary data streams to get data back to the enterprise network. An added challenge is figuring all of this out for a controlled environment like a substation, where you need to make sure any added devices won’t get in the way of security protocols and regulations, such as the North American Electric Reliability Corp.’s Critical Infrastructure Protocols. You can still monitor certain equipment without getting into the command and control side, which could bring a lot more regulatory oversight.

Data integration

Integration has to be a cornerstone of a digital utility. You are only getting the information that is actionable when it connects to our work order management, or when it can correct an issue when a certain data threshold is eclipsed — all without manual intervention.

JEA is using integration to combine data from different systems to get a full picture. As an example, we use OSIsoft’s PI System for monitoring different equipment points, and then we have Oracle for asset management. If I’m an asset management technician, I really need to see data from both sides to do my job. We’re looking at what we need to do to combine data from these multiple systems so that employees can see all pertinent data from all enterprise systems without having to open and close a lot of different applications.

Workforce mobilization

Mobilizing the workforce, which typically means moving from paper-based processes to technology, can also include making the jump from laptops to very portable tablets, so certain field-based employees don’t need to go back to the service center to do all they need to do. We started with identifying the critical processes we have that are currently done on paper. One example is safety. We have pre- and post-trip checks, which are being done on paper. We found that if we digitized those, not only have we made it easier for the field crew that has to do that process — they can click a few times on a tablet instead of writing in triplicate — but it also creates a new data source that you can potentially integrate and discover new things.

Opening up the tools and services available in the cloud, which are available for a nominal cost, has been a game changer for us. It has allowed us to move forward in months on what would normally take years. Making these moves isn’t just about increased productivity and analytics — it also leads to happier employees. Automation and intuition on a mobile device saves them time and has a snowball effect.

The biggest challenge in all of this is change management. We are a 100-year-old utility, and we’ve been successful doing things for a certain way for a long time. We’ve done some tablet pilots where we could tell that some employees threw the tablet in the back of the truck and never turned it on. But then we saw others who discover how it really does make their job easier.

On the technology side, we make a lot of assumptions, like “Oh, everyone’s just going to use it,” but when deploying a new technology, it’s important to do training from the beginning — starting with how to turn the device on and use basic functions. Don’t assume people know.

It’s important to recognize that this is longer-term change. The skill sets in your utility will have to continue to change, and while you’re building skills and familiarity, you can lean on vendors and partners to help you get there. We rely on our partners a lot for mobility and where we’re going for mobile apps and devices.

Customer expectations

Changing customer expectations are really driving digitization. When I can hop on my phone and know everything about my checking account in 30 seconds or get same-day grocery deliveries to my house, that sets the bar. Utilities are a little behind other sectors on providing real-time data at a moment’s notice. We have to consider what our customers might want to know on a moment’s notice, and what data we have available. As a customer myself, there are sometimes noncritical things I want to know about my energy, like when I turn my pool pump on, how much is that driving my bill? Or how would my bill change if I got a hot tub?

One relatively successful pilot about two years ago provided a small customer sample with a mobile phone app with data straight from their meter on consumption and demand. One benefit we originally anticipated was that if we educated customers, they could help with peak shaving. The rationale was, as a customer, if I know exactly at any moment in time how much I’m pulling from the grid and how that reflects on my bill, will that change my behavior?

It’s about educating your customers on what comprises their electric demand, whether that is knowing appliance signatures that can know at the breaker box what is using the electricity. It will eventually get to the point where customers will look to the utility to help break down their usage to know how to lower their demand.


When you are putting devices out there, that creates vulnerable endpoints. Before deploying technology, we work through how we will manage security. Solutions include creating a secure connection into the enterprise network through a virtual private network, multifactor authentication, developing policies, and requiring biometrics to access devices.

An old security cliché is that you want to bake it in, not bolt it on, and a core aspect of digitization is making sure it is secure. To that end, the IT security team must be a player in any digitization effort.