Electricity consumers have more technology choice than ever before: rooftop solar, batteries, smart appliances and energy management apps, for example. But they're not the only ones.
Energy suppliers are also seeing unprecedented choice in the technologies designed to help them run their operations and cut costs.
Some of the hottest technologies emerging today -- wearable computers, virtual and augmented reality, and drones -- are becoming increasingly attractive for utilities looking to improve safety and streamline operations.
Many of those tech options were on display at the DistribuTech conference this week, where large vendors and startups alike are trying to sell utilities on their benefits. (For more on how this part of the business is evolving, see GTM's many reports on early experimentation with drones and augmented reality.)
It's an easy sell, in theory.
There are many compelling use cases: drones could track the health of the transmission and distribution system, cutting down on the use of helicopter flyovers or manual visits; engineers could use augmented reality (think Google Glass) to quickly target a problem with a piece of equipment; or a virtual reality model could enable someone to remotely predict catastrophic failures to distribution equipment. The list of potential benefits is long.
But as experts pointed out at DistribuTech this week, the list of potential complications is equally long.
"Folks are starting to get the idea that this is out there. But it’s going to be a long time before it becomes the norm," said Matthew Spaur, the utilities marketing manager at Space-Time Insight.
Jeff St. John profiled Space-Time Insight's virtual reality offering for utilities at last year's DistribuTech in March. At that time, the startup had built its first beta -- an Oculus virtual-reality headset system that allowed the user to make basic observations and decisions about a substation.
The cost and performance trends for virtual reality generally are positive -- and they've also been good for Space-Time Insight. Over the last year, the company built the second phase of its beta, which is faster and includes far more decision-making capabilities. It is planning a consumer product launch in March.
The technology is improving so quickly, Spaur said, that in comparison today's applications are "like running Windows 95."
Headset resolutions are improving and gaining wider acceptance from consumers and investors. But cautious utilities aren't exactly following the same adoption curve.
"It is kind of a leap," said Spaur. "It's old-school thinking clashing with the cutting edge." Although Spaur wouldn't give a number, he did say that Space-Time Insight has been getting traction with utilities that are using the second beta version.
"With any utility, if you show them a clear benefit, they'll listen," he said.
So where would a traditional power provider start with finding those benefits?
Duke Energy, a large, vertically integrated utility that has been a leader in experimentation, recently came up with a plan to start testing augmented reality. Its experience simultaneously shows how excited power companies are about the potential, and how slow the adoption process will unfold.
Aleksandar Vukojevic, a manager at Duke's emerging technologies office, put it simply: "It’s complex."
In 2014, the emerging technologies unit put together a plan to test four different wearable devices (Google Glass, the Kopin Golden-i, a device from XOEye Technologies, and the Atheer AiR) to understand how they'd work for simple tasks, including inventory management and simple equipment maintenance.
The experience was positive and made Vukojevic a believer in the potential of the technology. But Duke's emerging tech team now has to convince many different units at the sprawling utility. And that significantly slows the adoption process.
"It's going to be up to each respective team to decide how to proceed. The change management angle is very difficult. Luckily for me, I'm not in change management," he said.
The technologists might be convinced of the immediate value. But that doesn't mean the company will act on it with the same sense of urgency.
For the folks on the cutting edge of testing, like at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the problems are much more technical. As vendors evolve and consolidate, it will be crucial for the industry to coalesce around communications standards to ensure no utility faces stranded investments.
"Technology will always be changing. But standards-based messaging should never change. So if your vendor goes out of business, any new device must speak the same language of the specification," said Gerald Gray, a technical expert at EPRI.
Adopting those standards so that utilities aren't locked into a specific messaging model is one of the most crucial tasks at hand, according to Gray. That's the work that EPRI, in partnership with utilities, has been doing over the last couple of years.
Vendor lock-in is a very real concern that could inhibit adoption of these cutting-edge tools.
"Soon we'll have a CIM [common information model] certification. And if you ask your vendor if they're compliant, the answer better be 'Yes,'" said Gray.
Drones are another technology being hindered primarily not by performance, but by rules and regulations. A number of utilities (as well as solar and oil and gas companies) are experimenting with using drones to monitor transmission lines and distribution equipment. But due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, companies must go through a lengthy application process in order to fly the unmanned devices out of line of sight.
"We're frustrated with the time that it takes to get approval," said Bryan Philips, the director of business development at SAM, a surveying and aerial mapping company. He thinks drones will be one of the most important parts of his business in the coming years.
The process is slowly improving. Since a new FAA streamlining process was put into place last spring, 1,400 applications for utility drones have been approved. And once the government establishes clear regulatory rules on how the devices can be used, experts expect a rapid increase in the use of drones for grid monitoring.
"That's what the world is trying to figure out. What exactly it looks like a few years down the road, we don't know. But it'll be big," said Philips.
In the meantime, research groups and large utilities continue to experiment with drones and virtual and augmented reality, as well as other types of wearable computing to track business operations.
The majority of those at DistribuTech seemed confident that these technologies will eventually become the norm in the power sector. But there are inherent complications when a slow-tech industry tries to adapt to a fast-tech world -- and those complications are far from resolved.
EPRI recently released a video showing how augmented reality could be used for utility workers. Watch it below: