Driving Efficiency with RPA in the Energy Utilities Sector


Robotic process automation (RPA) is a useful technology that automates routine work using software robots that often imitate employees. These duties frequently involve E&U organisations’ business procedures like billing, payments, check-in and check-out, as well as other administrative duties. While RPA is becoming more and more popular across several businesses, the E&U industry is less developed than other sectors. 

RPA in the Energy and utilities (E&U) is a customer-focused sector where each person relies on the services offered to meet their daily needs. Given the enormous volume of transactions that take place daily and the potential of human mistake in this industry, RPA companies are crucial for businesses to handle transactions effectively and enhance the customer experience, which is frequently neglected by businesses. The influence of RPA on E&U enterprises’ internal business operations and customer-facing activities is covered in this chapter.

Modern society depends on RPA in the energy, gas, water, and waste management on a daily basis like never before in human history. These services are necessary for every home and every person’s everyday needs. The Energy & Utilities (E&U) Industry is in a particularly unique position as a result of this.

Similar to the insurance sector, the E&U sector is frequently subject to government regulation, which differs from nation to country. The challenges and ongoing change that come with contemporary civilization also affect the E&U sector. The worldwide energy and utility business is going through unprecedented changes, according to a report by Capgemini:

• “The three ‘D’s’ of decarbonization, deregulation, and decentralisation are making a big difference.

• The industry is transitioning from its conservative, regulated past to a new, innovative future. Previously mostly passive, its consumer base has evolved into a group of ‘prosumers’ who demand a high level of sophistication from the industries they engage in.

To take advantage of these changes, digitalization will be essential. Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies are primarily responsible for controlling the balance between supply and demand, increasing efficiency throughout the entire value chain, improving the customer experience, and changing business models.

The power of rule-based technologies like robotic process automation (RPA), for instance, is underappreciated in the RPA in the energy and utilities sector. According to Capgemini research, intelligent automation and RPA at scale can save the Energy & Utilities sector between $237 billion and $813 billion. For instance, the leaders in automation, like the Russian gas giant Gazprom, used RPA to automate the verification of metre readings. An employee was able to validate 130 invalid metre reads in the first two weeks following the automation’s introduction, saving each employee 10 hours each week.

Describe RPA

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is a non-intrusive, rule-based technology that automates routine operations and procedures that were previously carried out by people. Given the significant proportion of transactions in the E&U sector that are handled by humans, it is easy to draw the conclusion that the bigger the number of transactions handled by humans, the higher the risk of human error.

Utility providers who automate their business processes see a large drop in errors—typically by more than 60%—after deploying RPA. Fewer errors imply higher customer satisfaction, which suggests that RPA enhances customer service and customer management, both of which are essential for E&U businesses to maintain a competitive edge in the market.

Water firm United Utilities, situated in the UK, was a pioneer in adopting RPA to automate back-office tasks. They have automated over 20 processes since 2017 and have 12 more in the works. Wallace Dean, the company’s head of robotics, explained the significance of RPA in the following way: “The benefits are not just time savings, but making the process resilient. We are aware that the robots will not take time off for vacation or illness.

And that is just another advantage of using RPA. Robots are accessible 365 days a year, seven days per week. If you utilise a robot to complete an automated task that normally takes four hours per day, that leaves you with 20 hours per day to complete additional tasks.

RPA can assist the E&U industry in driving digital transformation and achieving extremely good outcomes rapidly and with little effort, as opposed to traditional IT solutions. Employees can use and embrace robotic process automation without having any IT knowledge because it has no impact on the current IT systems and doesn’t require changes to them.

What is automatable? Utility RPA Implementation 

What is automatable? Utility RPA Implementation

This pandemic helped RPA have a wider perspective on “automation for purpose” rather than just mass value automation. RPA is typically connected with reducing manual work burden, therefore supply chain, human resources, and finance have been the most popular areas of use. To deploy RPA, utilities must look at non-traditional sectors like staff management, asset management, and more, which are being stimulated by the issues brought on by the pandemic. 

To give an example, the accuracy of the information available from work orders directly affects the productivity of the field force on a typical day. The agents’ inputted data, which includes asset details, is then used to determine the accuracy of the work orders. Inaccurate asset information would result in erroneous work orders and decreased field force productivity. Here, it is essential to strike a balance between the necessity of accuracy and the efficient use of the field force. This is one situation where RPA may be really helpful because it can carry out tedious activities like data entry, which not only speeds up the process but also ensures reliability. 

Optical character recognition (OCR) and intelligent character recognition (ICR) technologies can be used in this context and beyond to digitalize image and text processing and automate data input for information like asset details and accounts receivable from invoices and purchase orders. By doing away with human labour and paper processing, these skills can reduce errors, hasten the procurement process, supply chain cycle, and service restoration time. 

RPA has the potential to replace human customer care representatives to a large extent when combined with chatbots or contact centres that use natural language processing (NLP) technologies. This enables client inquiries and complaints to be recorded, with RPA aiding in the collection of customer information. Simple information like a user’s location, the type and severity of their complaint, their callback number, etc. can be automatically logged, and human agents can be contacted based on priority. Based on the seriousness of these issues, automation can also assist with assigning workers to field activities. 

A wide variety of processes in the E&U sector can be automated. The E&U sector accounts for more than 50% of automation use cases today, and key operations make up the majority of them. Just a few of them are as follows:

• Metre Reading Validation – Humans are used by utility companies to read the metre before invoicing the client for consumption. Sometimes a human error might result in an inaccurate bill being generated, either overcharging or undercharging the customer. Such mistakes can seriously harm a company’s reputation. Metre reading validation can be automated with RPA, cutting down on time, expense, and the possibility of error. Additionally, if an error is discovered, the robot flags it instantly and alerts the user to fix the issue. Customers complain less as a result, which improves their overall experience.

• Correcting Misreads – RPA can quickly rectify a customer’s metre misreading.

• Billing and Statements – RPA can effortlessly handle receivables, correct overcharges, or simply process payments, assisting E&U enterprises in forging stronger bonds with their clients. Because RPA may also automate the creation of reports and statements, an Energy & Utilities organisation can improve data management and sales analytics.

• New Account Setup – Rule-based technology, such as RPA, can speed up account opening by avoiding errors like incorrect customer information or by verifying all rules that must match for the account to be successfully opened. If there is a problem, the software alerts a worker, who fixes it.

Increase in robot use in the E&U sector

Even though there are still some doubters regarding automation and digitalization in the E&U sector, leading organisations and automation pioneers perceive benefits of using RPA within a few months, sometimes even within a few weeks. Here are a few examples of real-world RPA implementations in core and support functions:

• British Petroleum automates their trading activity in the energy sector. The trading floor data can now be consolidated thanks to automation, says Ayman Assaf, CIO for compliance, regulatory, risk, and finance at BP Supply & Trading. Our analysts’ roles change as a result, giving them more time to work on projects with larger stakes. In order to better understand the meaning of the data, they can spend time doing so rather than gathering data sets.

• Complaints Management – Exeleon, a U.S. energy and gas utility, uses RPA chatbot to address particular customer complaints, allowing them to gain a deeper understanding of their clients’ needs.

• Finance & Accounting: Order entry and pricing computation — EDF Energy, based in the UK, is using RPA to automate human order inputs that used to take 70 hours to complete each month. Eight procedures were automated, yielding a six times return on investment.

• Purchasing: Records of inventories, addressing a request from a client or supplier, Contract administration: Exxon Mobil makes use of a contract planning bot that notifies the company each time a contract is up for renewal. More time is available for procurement to identify new vendors or rework existing contracts. Therefore, contracts cannot come to an end secretly.

• Human resources: reporting and compliance, absence management, and employee management RPA is used by Synergy, Western Australia’s top energy producer and retailer, to automate operations in common HR services.

As technology advances, the established business models for energy utilities face pressure from all sides as competition rises. Nevertheless, despite the enormous changes taking place, the industry has only recently begun to move past its current conservative worldview.

Along with blockchain, smart metres, and the Internet of Things, consulting company Ernst & Young sees robotic process automation as one of the four digital fundamental technologies for the future of the energy sector.

We think that businesses that adopt a new culture of automation and digitization will be better equipped to innovate, create new business models, and expand than businesses that don’t.

In conclusion

The adoption of (Robotic Process Automation) RPA in the energy and utilities sector signals a new era of increased efficiency, reduced human error, and improved customer experiences. Companies within this industry are uniquely positioned to capitalize on this technology, given the vast amount of transactions and the need for meticulous accuracy in routine tasks such as meter reading, billing, and account set up. As the technology matures, the use cases of RPA are expanding beyond traditional areas, venturing into the realms of asset management, field force productivity, and customer care.

From large-scale energy producers like British Petroleum to local utilities like United Utilities and Exeleon, real-world examples of RPA implementation are rapidly multiplying, providing tangible evidence of RPA’s transformative potential. While the industry has been somewhat slower in embracing digital transformation compared to other sectors, the compelling benefits offered by RPA are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Despite initial hesitations, it’s evident that companies that embrace this shift towards automation and digitalization will be the frontrunners in navigating the sector’s changing landscape. RPA, along with other emerging technologies like blockchain and the Internet of Things, are poised to reshape the industry, fostering innovation, new business models, and growth. Therefore, investing in RPA is not merely about enhancing existing operations but is a strategic move towards future-proofing businesses in the energy and utilities sector.

Azeez Bijin April 24, 2023