The energy sector is tasked with a simple mission: power the world and protect the planet. To do it, the ability to access and analyze massive amounts of data is critical.
This is one of the reasons we are so excited to have National Grid Partners (NGP) on board as a strategic investor in our recent Series D funding round.
To better understand how data analytics fits into this mission, our colleague Olivia James sat down with Pradeep Tagare, NGP’s Vice President of Corporate Venture Capital. Pradeep led NGP’s investment in Incorta and is known as a trend spotter in the industry. Here’s our interview:
Olivia: What are the key trends that you’ve seen unfolding in utilities over the past few years, and what’s driving those?
Pradeep: There are some technology trends that have been taking shape for the past few years that are now coming together to change the industry as we know it.
One is the emergence of renewable energy. For a long time, it was in an experimentation phase. Now it’s getting to be mainstream.
The second trend is electric vehicles and integration of EV infrastructure with the electric grid.
And the third is the emergence of storage that goes with solar installations, for example.
These things are changing the nature of the grid, and they are generating tons of data. We’re getting to a point where managing the data around all of this is an interesting challenge.
Olivia: When people think about investments in safe, clean, affordable energy, investing in a data analytics company probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. How does that fit into your playbook?
Pradeep: The investment thesis is around what are known in the utility space as the three Ds: digitization, decentralization, and decarbonization.
Digitization is making sure that all operations are digitized. A utility actually generates a lot of data — sensor data and customer data, for example. Being able to get that data in one place and make sense of it is not an easy task, but that lays the foundation for all the other layers on top of it.
For example, if we want to deploy renewable resources, they have to be integrated with the grid. It’s actually a data problem more than a hardware problem, because integration depends on a lot of factors such as time of day, price of energy, and loads on different systems.
Digitization further enables decentralization and decarbonization as well. What we are finding is that data are the new electrons in the utility industry.
Olivia: Can you talk a little bit more about how data analytics enables decarbonization?
Pradeep: There’s a spectrum of initiatives that utilities are pursuing for decarbonizing their operations. Integrating renewable resources onto the grid is part of that, but it is not a simple task.
Let’s say I’m generating extra power through my solar installation. I can’t just feed that back to the grid. The grid operator has to decide when and how this renewable resource comes online.
You need an algorithm to go through all of the factors and determine how to intelligently bring different resources onto the grid without creating imbalances.
The second part of decarbonization is managing all the different operations that emit carbon. Utilities need a data layer that lets them understand where their carbon emissions are, and then track and monitor them on an ongoing basis.
Olivia: The utility industry sits at the intersection of policy, technology, and business. What is the role of each? What is the role of data?
Pradeep: One of the big challenges in the utility industry is that there’s no consolidated view of data across all the stakeholders. Regulators have one perspective. Technology companies build tools to manage the data. Each utility business deploys those tools in a way that aligns with their strategic objectives.
One of the things that will provide clarity across this entire stakeholder ecosystem is having common data standards. We also need tools that can pull in data from any source without a lot of work and allow you to run all kinds of analysis on that data set. If that data is available, and if that is exposed to the stakeholders, it really will speed creation of a new system.
Olivia: Incorta is that tool. But where do the common standards come from?
Pradeep: There are a lot of standards that are being developed, especially around carbon reporting. It’s still an evolving field, but over time, we expect that there will be a reporting standard. The important thing is going to be being able to get the data together to be able to report out using those standards.
Olivia: Where does AI fit into the picture?
Pradeep: AI is going to be at the heart of the new smart grid.
There are all kinds of potential applications. For example, vegetation management. How do you know when a tree branch is coming close to a transmission line? Or know when snow is causing dangerous sag on a transmission line? You can use satellite imagery and run AI models on it to detect when that happens.
Utility companies are just at the beginning of getting quality data from their sensor networks. It’s a relatively new data set, and the challenge of getting value out of it is twofold: being able to handle the volume and velocity of the data, then getting it all into one place where you can do analysis and build predictive models. We need tools to be able to do that.
Olivia: You have two teenage daughters. Let’s say that all your investments perform extremely well. What will their world look like in a decade, two decades, three decades with regard to energy?
Pradeep: Our goal with these investments really is to get to a place where we are not only achieving our net-zero goals, but we are helping other companies in the ecosystem achieve those goals as well.
I hope that 10, 20, years from now we will have achieved a substantial reduction in carbon emissions. We’ll have 70-80 percent renewable energy. We’ll have a smart, resilient grid where we don’t have blackouts and all these other kinds of issues.
We depend on electricity, and assume it will always be there. We have had some rude awakenings lately that show us it is not necessarily a given. I hope we get back to the state in the next decade or two to where it is a given, and not only that, but a given that it’s clean as well.