Fostering a culture of innovation in the grid business

An interview with Dr. Alexander Montebaur, CEO of E.DIS

Fostering a culture of innovation in the grid business

The energy world is transforming. It’s becoming increasingly decentralised with network connection points multiplying and energy flows fragmenting more and more. In this context the energy networks infrastructure becomes an essential platform where energy transition actually happens.

Intelligent technologies and digital solutions are becoming vital in managing complex energy flows, while ensuring a reliable electricity supply. Vaiva Seskeviciute from E.ON Innovation had a chance to speak to Dr. Alexander Montebaur, CEO of E.DIS, about the role of innovation in the context of energy transition in the grid business. 

You've spent over 20 years of your life working in the energy industry. What led you on this path?

I started on this path right after school after studying electronic engineering and focusing specifically on computer science. After my studies I was given the very exciting task of directly applying my knowledge in the energy industry. I quickly realised that the energy sector is a fascinating area and I have never left it since. During my years of practice I have been consistently reassured that applying computer science in the energy industry is just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. 

How has the energy sector changed over the years?

The biggest change is the move from very large-scale to very small-scale systems. This results in a totally different role for the customer. While the customer was passive in the past, he/she is now an active member of the energy system – a prosumer. This is a fundamental change in the energy industry.

The global digitalisation trend is the main enabler of this transformation for both our customers and for us. It offers opportunities to optimise and digitally transfer our processes. 

Prosumers are now taking an active role in the future energy market. Is it the responsibility of DSOs to pave the way for this? And how is E.DIS contributing to this?

It is absolutely the responsibility of DSOs. New energy paradigms not only include the big players, but also households, communities, regions and even municipal utilities. Our task is to enable all of them to play an active role in the energy market by providing intelligent infrastructure and digital solutions.

To do this, we must focus primarily on bringing more intelligence to our grid. At E.DIS alone we are spending millions on this alone in the coming years. We are introducing digital sensing and detecting techniques. These allow us to steer, control and maintain the grid in a totally different way than we did in the past. More importantly, these technologies will fulfil the new requirements of customers and of future solutions by any player in the energy market. For the first time, the grid will be perceived as an enabler and not as an obstacle. 

Since you have started heading E.DIS, you have introduced a number of initiatives that drive energy transformation forward. What role does innovation play here?

Innovation and digitalisation are the key elements of our strategy and will completely change our business in the near future. They are an essential ingredient for continuous improvement and growth. We have already expanded the use of artificial intelligence, automatisation technology and augmented reality. We constantly seek to employ the newest technologies into our processes and find the right partners to work with to support this.

But that’s not all. Although innovation has a number of technical aspects, it is primarily about culture and change – a change that each of us has to incorporate into our daily lives. I want to send a message to my employees that digitalisation is not the same as IT – it is a mindset. 

Can you tell us more about how you ensure that having an innovative mindset is a fundamental corporate value in E.DIS?

To spread this message across the company takes some time and effort. The first important step happened two years ago when we released our new strategy paper called “Our way 2025”. For the first time, innovation and digitalisation have been positioned as a main driver of our business. This was a strong message for both our customers and employees.

Since then, we are deploying more new digital technologies than ever. We’re scouting and recruiting new talent and spreading innovation culture across the company through open and transformational leadership.

What are some of the main innovation projects at E.DIS?

One of the projects that directly comes to mind is Digiplan – a digital planning platform that simplifies and automates the grid connection requests. The story of how we got there is just as exciting as the solution itself.

Two years ago, I was having dinner with an innovation manager at Siemens. He was telling me about the enormous possibilities Industry 4.0 can bring and the solutions that he is already implementing at his company. I was inspired and fascinated by his work and couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation. It was one of those moments when your eyes get opened to a world of possibilities.

The next day, I had a meeting with my colleagues from E.DIS about grid calculations – a process that estimates whether the grid is capable of integrating another renewable power plant, or if it needs to be expanded. They were giving me details about the process that included a manual estimation of each asset that takes up to 8 weeks. Taking into consideration the inspiring talk that I had the night before, I couldn’t help thinking: how can we still have such a manual mechanism in our digital world?

I discussed my thoughts with my team and by the end of the day we had a concrete idea for a digital solution. We started working with the startup Envelio and reduced the process time from 8 weeks to 5 seconds. This is what I call digital innovation – doing things in a completely different way. We didn’t know if it was even possible. The most important thing is to open your mind and try. 

What role do partnerships play in E.DIS innovation activities?

Montabauer interview

We see partnerships at the very core of our activities, especially when it comes to startups. Startups see things differently. They introduce technologies that hadn’t previously been on our radar and they challenge conventional wisdom.

People like me, who have spent decades in the energy industry already, have business knowledge and very deep expertise. Sometimes so deep that it is hard to believe that some things are even possible. When we come together with startups and learn from each other, innovative solutions are born.

To strengthen our cooperation with startups we funded a new unit in 2018. Since then, we have started numerous collaboration projects and initiatives.

Two initiatives focusing on startups were especially fruitful: the E.DIS Startup Challenge and our Innovation Hub in Berlin. With both initiatives we became an active part of the startup ecosystem in Berlin and formulated a number of fresh ideas. One great outcome was that we started co-developing a satellite-based solution for our vegetation and asset management together with the Berlin based startup LiveEO. Together we are testing and improving the LiveEO solution to identify vegetation risks in our grid more quickly and efficiently, using an automated application of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms.

Together with our partner network, we are pursuing innovative approaches and digital solutions that improve our work, strengthen our core business and make our networks ready for the future. A future full of new challenges and great opportunities.

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