International award energises Ergon Energy operations

30 June 2015

Ian McLeod Ergon

Ergon Energy is literally a powerhouse, supplying electricity to over 720,000 customers and employing almost 4500 employees with an $11 billion asset base.

The Queensland Government-owned corporation recently took out the prestigious International Edison Award for 2015 in New Orleans, which recognises distinguished leadership, innovation, and contributions to the advancement of the electric industry for the benefit of all. 

Ergon Energy earned the award for developing and implementing the innovative ROAMES Virtual World Asset Management System.

Brisbane-based Ergon CEO Ian McLeod spoke to Brisbane Marketing about the award and ROAMES technology, the challenges and opportunities facing the energy sector, and how important innovation is to staying ahead of the curve.

International recognition for Ergon must feel pretty good? 

It feels really good. We are very proud of being recognised internationally through the Edison Electric Institute’s International Edison Award. The award recognises distinguished leadership, innovation, and contributions to the advancement of the electric industry for the benefit of all.  

Creating a technology-based solution that is likely to benefit many millions of people around the world is extremely gratifying and motivating for our very talented people. Sometimes being innovative in Australia is like swimming against a fast current, but that makes it even more rewarding when the goal is achieved and recognised. I think ROAMES is proof that Queensland can develop and export technology.

What does the award mean for the South East Queensland energy customers who just want cheap, reliable power supplies?

The ROAMES technology improves customers’ service, network reliability, safety and disaster response and achieves this at a lower cost. This puts downward pressure on the costs to inspect and maintain the network and the surrounding vegetation.

Can you explain in layman’s terms what ROAMES is?

ROAMES stands for Remote Observation Automated Modelling Economic Simulation. We use planes enabled with flight planning and assist systems, high-resolution imagery and advanced sensor technology to capture 160,000km of line assets and the surrounding environment (vegetation, ground and buildings) each year. The big data is processed into 3D virtual world from which non-complying operating conditions such as vegetation and ground clearance are automatically identified with centimetre accuracy. Where required, work orders are automatically generated to remove the risk. 

The technology is also being used to quickly identify damaged assets and lines down after a disaster, allowing us to remotely identify material and resource requirements in often inaccessible areas. This speeds up restoration timeframes and reduces cost. ROAMES was recently used to respond to Cyclone Marcia in central Queensland. The technology will also be used for disaster resilience planning to model wind and storm surge impacts, allowing us to relocate critical assets to improve reliability and power restoration timeframes.

ROAMES is also used to assist in job planning and designing customers’ extensions form the desktop, which avoids costly field visits.
  
One of Brisbane Marketing’s core values is to innovate. It would appear that is a value we share with Ergon. How important is it as a large organisation to embrace an innovative culture and practice?

It’s critical. We can’t be sustainable without it. We are very conscious of the cost pressures people are under. We can reduce our cost to serve by using new and emerging technology, be it spatial intelligence such as ROAMES, or putting batteries on the grid or in homes. Our customers want more choice and control and we want to give it to them. Therefore it is critical we create an environment that supports innovation. It is one of our corporate values and something I champion. 

Our industry in particular is at a juncture where we can leverage disruptive technologies such as spatial intelligence, big data, energy storage, distributed and renewable generation and demand management to increase energy productivity, lower carbon emissions and reduce costs.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing energy retailers in South East Queensland today and in the future?

Customers don’t want to be worried about increasing energy prices or actively trying to manage their consumption. They want to be passive, to set and forget based on their lifestyle or business needs. Their needs will be different, so customer intelligence (what we know about our customers) and segmentation is becoming more important. Retailers will need to have a closer understanding of their customers and provide a much broader range of services that the customers value, and deliver those services in a way that simplifies the customers, life and grow loyalty.

On a personal note, you have more than 30 years’ experience in the energy industry. Have you ever considered a different career or direction and how did you get your start in the industry?

I like to make a positive impact.  A stint at leading a top 200 ASX entity would be something I would find challenging, enjoyable and a personal growth experience. Also I’m very interested in technology solutions, so building solutions and taking them through to building a successful commercial business that provides growth in local knowledge, skills and employment is something that interests me.

I originally started in the industry in a trade role and worked my way up through local management, senior management and executive roles.

You’ve been based in Brisbane for some time. What are your favourite parts of the city and how do you think it compares to other cities internationally?

My favourite part of the city is the Brisbane River. My wife Maree and I, and Marley our lab, walk the paths around the river and South Bank as often as we can. Brisbane has matured a lot over the last decade and international awareness and reputation is growing. It offers a great lifestyle, academic institutions, a pleasant environment and amenity without the hustle and bustle of some of the bigger cities.