You want to reduce your carbon footprint. But where to start? Obvious answers may be to cut air travel or change to a plant-based diet. But there is also a significant impact to be had from simply changing the way you heat your home.

In Europe, more than three quarters of the energy used by households goes on heating. So what can be done?

Final energy consumption in the residential sector by fuel. Credit: Eurostat

 

Swedish energy firm Vattenfall could have the answer. Lamin Faye, Director of Digitalization at the company’s heat division says Vattenfall is on a mission to help customers achieve fossil fuel-free living in one generation:

“We came to the conclusion that heat is actually a very emotional product. Everybody has had the argument with their partner about how warm the bedroom should be. And everybody knows the feeling of walking into a cold bathroom in the morning.

“Our focus on optimizing heat at home is about enabling our customers to live in comfort while reducing their environmental impact. To have the comfort when they need it and to reduce the consumption when they don’t. As an integrated value chain utility, we can also make sure that customer savings result in heat production saving. And digital transformation is the key to achieving this goal.”

The company says this has potential to make a major impact on climate change and has led to a rethink on what their business was all about.

“Most people think we are just about boiling water. But that’s not what we are doing. We are actually making the difference between comfort and discomfort in a fossil free household” he says.

Back to basics

“We started this journey with a lot of excitement about new tech and a lot of confusion at the same time. So we deliberately started with the customer interface asking ourselves a lot of difficult questions about what we are for,” he says.

Vattenfall has highlighted three core areas where digital has the potential to add value to their business.

These areas are customers, business operations and staff. Vattenfall already knew a lot about customer behavior in the district heating schemes it operates. But a breakthrough moment came when it started to imagine what a technology disruptor could do in this area.

“I think it’s helpful for a utility like Vattenfall to think about how our business could be disrupted if the tech giants, the Amazons, the Googles or new tech entrants were to take over. Where would they start? Our conclusion was that it is all about the customer interface.

“We have been traditionally focused on delivery, availability of supply, security of supply and production optimization. What we call optimizing heat at home is all about how we get creative about our customers’ comfort.”

Building for the future

Final energy consumption in the residential sector by type of end-uses for the main energy products. Credit: Eurostat

The team knew that building design drives behavior. In Germany, for example, they noted a phenomenon they call “the chicken race”, where customers in apartment buildings count on their neighbors’ heating to warm their homes before they switch on their own. The last person to turn on their boiler saves the most money.

Using data tools, Faye’s team set up a project in Sweden to show customers how changing their behavior could make a difference. “With a combination of analytics and sensors we have shown a saving of 10% in building usage and a 10% reduction in how much heat we dispatch on the grid,” he says.

Data-driven operations and maintenance, he explains, are about leveraging digital technologies to save energy and increase customers’ comfort.

“It’s about supplying more people while consuming fewer kilowatt hours. In the energy industry, you have the constant dilemma that we sell volume, but the customer wants to reduce their volume. And increasingly that’s because of their CO2 footprint, not because of cost,” he says.

“Data driven operations and maintenance is about optimization, creating real savings not only for us but benefits for our customers and the environment.”

And digitalized equipment feeding data to self-learning analytical tools using AI, he says, will revolutionize the business.

There are many companies offering to optimize home heating, but Faye says Vattenfall’s opportunity is to connect that work with heat production. That, he says, is where data-driven operation optimization can make a real difference.

Focus on the workforce

The third pillar of Vattenfall’s transformation process is creating a digital workforce, and the key to unlocking the potential here was to help employees see how technologies they use in their private lives could make their jobs more effective and rewarding.

“We have a lot of people who are doing things that are not the best use of their ability and it definitely does not drive engagement,” he says. “Robotic Process Automation is a shining example of how technology can take over work that people do not want to do. We can make a real difference in terms of engagement and value creation.”

Working with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Faye’s team set out to harness the power of digital technologies. The first fruit of that collaboration has been using Robotics Process Automation to automate the customer meter-reading process.

“We had a competition to name the robot, involving people on the workshop floor. They have been our strongest ambassadors and influencers, promoting it and how it improves their lives,” he says. He also invited managers to ‘build your own robot’ workshops. “They are now cool digital natives who can go out and say, ‘I know how this works, I have done it’.”

Faye says the RPA investment has already created time savings of more than 5,000 hours a year– exceeding his team’s target to save 3,000 hours, months in advance. It’s proof of the short-term benefits of digitalization.

The future is about integrating and optimizing systems. “Optimizing integrated systems will change the game,” he says. “The connection between how you use and produce heat has to become much closer. And that’s what digital can achieve, significantly reducing the gap between what is needed and what is produced.”

And that will benefit customers, suppliers and, most of all, the environment.