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Investing in the next generation

The primary challenge associated with utility analytics initiatives is the “lack of necessary skills/staff” according to the Utility Analytics Institute’s recently published 2014 Grid Analytics Report. This year’s Utility Analytics Summit focused significant attention on the analytics knowledge, skills, and abilities required of the data scientist, business process owner, IT professional, and utility executive. We looked at how a utility can enhance its “analytics organizational competency” and examined the professional development resources available to existing utility employees. We also explored potential partnership opportunities that exist between utility and academia.


SAS Night of Innovation Event at the Utility Analytics Summit

SAS took the focus on analytics skillsets to the next level at the SAS Night of Innovation held at the beautiful SAS world headquarters campus. SAS announced a software and research grant to the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC Charlotte. This grant will equip EPIC’s energy analytics research lab with SAS Energy Forecasting and SAS Visual Analytics, and EPIC courses will soon rely on SAS software to educate students on descriptive, prescriptive, and predictive analytics.   


The SAS Night of Innovation began with a reception, followed by a warm welcome from Karen Joslyn, SAS GM/VP of the US Energy Practice. Guests were treated to an entertaining video that included the perspectives of SAS CEO Jim Goodnight and other world renowned thought leaders on the topics of innovation and business transformation. Randy Guard, SAS Vice President, Product Management then shared a thought-provoking presentation and announced the SAS grant to UNC Charlotte. The evening concluded with a panel discussion moderated by Paul Dick, SAS Executive Lead, Utilities that included the distinguished panelists below:


  • Jeff Corbett, Senior Vice President – Carolinas Delivery Operations, Duke Energy
  • Dr. Johan Enslin, Director, EPIC and Duke Energy Distinguished Chair in Power System Engineering, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
  • Gary Rackliffe, VP Smart Grids, North America, ABB
  • Lee Anne Nance, Executive Vice President, Research Triangle Regional Partnership


Following the briefing, an attendee reflected on the value of real time data, stating “Speed allows you to address problems that you could not address before now.” A water utility representative said “I am wondering how the information shared might translate to the water side and how much our power company is thinking about some of these types of things.”


Insights from Dr. Johan Enslin

I had the very good fortune to talk with Dr. Enslin at some length. He has experience as an industry executive and consultant, and has served as an electrical and electronic engineering professor atuniversities in the U.S., Europe and South Africa. He knows the utility sector well having initiated and managed renewable energy groups, executed complex projects in power system planning, power electronics, and integrated large-scale solar and wind power to the grid.


Dr. Enslin envisions that distributed generation, renewables, decentralized grid intelligence, and more engaged customers will combine to dramatically transform the utility industry as we know it today. That is why making investments in analytics now is so important. Small players and individual customers will participate in the energy marketplace much like investors do in today’s stock market. The “customer will be the king” of the utility of tomorrow.


EPIC and the SAS software and research grant

Dr. Enslin explained that EPIC is a multi-disciplinary program that is the result of a public-private partnership. EPIC was formed in response to the energy industry’s need for highly trained and qualified engineers. While mostof the initial capital investment required to construct the facilities and hire the EPIC faculty came from the State of North Carolina, $17 million of investment was provided by industry. The program started with 22 professors and is now 120 professors strong, and has an annual research budget of about $10 million. Dr. Enslin said:


 “The SAS grant extends the public-private partnership and will be used to build out an energy analytics laboratory that will be used both to train students in their senior year as they move into industry and to conduct research into issues of primary importance to the utility industry. This grant builds on a multi-disciplinary program initiated last year focused on big data. We are very eager and proud to be associated with SAS.”


SAS is providing EPIC with a suite of enterprise software platforms. With this gift, EPIC will have the capability to train students to do the same sort of work at the university that is done in industry. “In terms of increasing our analytical capabilities, this grant is a major step forward” said Dr. Enslin.


Dr. Enslin outlined the short term and long term objectives of the SAS grant as follows.


Short Term Goals

The focus of this grant will be on developing tomorrow’s workforce. “We have a skills gap in terms of quantity due to the fact that many utility professionals will be retiring soon, and we also have a skillset gap. New skills will be needed for the utility of the future. We need a new way of looking at a power utility engineer. We need to blend the traditional power professional skillsets that utilities have developed in house with skills related to big data and analytics, informatics, communications networks, and how to analyze large sums of data. We need people that understand transformers and transmission lines. You can’t just take a data or IT professional and plug him into the power industry and expect that he will be very productive” said Dr. Enslin.


EPIC has plans to beef up its capabilities, specifically using this grant from SAS, to support the transition to the utility of the future. “The typical power engineer that goes through our master’s program will receive both the traditional power education and will learn data analytics, forecasting, and quantification networks. While you can’t be expert in everything, the next generation of engineers will need a good fundamental background in all of these areas. Our master’s degree programs will also enable students to focus on the data aspects of the power industry” said Dr. Enslin.


Long Term Goals

Over the longer term, the research enabled by this grant will help guide development of the utility business model that the future demands. SAS will be working with one or more EPIC faculty members on research projects on topics such as energy forecasting, solar integration forecasting, and load forecasting. Dr. Enslin said “We can anticipate more distributed resources, new technologies coming onto the grid, and customers that are better educated about their energy use. All of this generates data that needs to be managed intelligently in order to design an optimum utility business model. This research facility is going to help answer a number of important industry questions.”


Final Thoughts

Building the utility of the future will require investment. While some of those investments will be directed to new engineering technologies, an investment is also required in “soft computing” skillsets and methodologies, including advanced analytics. It is nice to see a Utility Analytics Institute member making such a substantial investment in the utility industry’s future.  


Kim Gaddy is a Senior Research Analyst with the Utility Analytics Institute and can be reached at

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