Comment: Disruptive technologies driving electric grid modernisation

It is imperative for utility companies to join the digital age if they are to keep up with its demands, says Maximilian Weber, senior vice president of utilities & communications, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division.


Over the last few decades, global electricity usage has increased significantly. Whilst this growth remains strong, it has failed to keep up with forecasts, leaving utilities with a flat revenue and aging infrastructure in need of capital investment. At the same time, new demands on the grid and disruptive technologies are requiring utilities to modernise.

The surge in electrification

There has undoubtedly been a sharp increase in the number of sectors turning towards electrification, especially in recent years. Perhaps one sector that has been impacted the most by this disruptive technology is the car industry.

In 2022, the demand for electric vehicles (EVs) increased by over 119 per cent, shifting the automotive landscape to a point where EVs are everywhere – from Tesla and Toyota to Ferrari and Mercedes. Public transportation is also increasingly turning towards electrification with now more than 1000 electric buses operating in London’s fleet. As such, the electric utility industry is facing a renewed sense of urgency as this additional load is making already aging power grids more vulnerable.

Furthermore, extreme heat waves over Europe just last year forced utility companies to limit capacity, due to cooling constraints in power plants, resulting in the importation of natural gas. This is not an ideal solution given the environmental damage this can cause. France, a country known for being an exporter of power, became an importer as half of its nuclear capacity was offline for maintenance during the summer surge. Spain also succumbed to the use of natural gas due to high temperatures.


Even though turning towards natural gas is not a long-term solution, other more sustainable methods pose their own challenges. For example, microgeneration of electricity via rooftop solar panels for individual homes or solar and wind farms for businesses can take pressure off the system – especially during times of peak demand – but it also requires utility companies to invest in systems to manage the influx of disparate power sources to the grid.

Why modernisation is essential

Making the most of these disruptive technologies will call for upfront investment in modern technology. First and foremost, the majority of utility networks will need to strengthen, update or renew their current infrastructure. Once their infrastructure has been addressed, utilities will need real-time insights and intelligence into their networks – an important next step if utilities want to observe and manage the electrical load and lifecycle of their infrastructure.

While many utility companies utilise GIS systems to track assets, the premier network management tool of the digital age is the digital twin: a 3D, geospatial model of the network, assisted by artificial intelligence. A digital twin offers many more advantages to current legacy GIS systems used to keep track of network assets.

Indeed, by using a digital twin, operators gain much more valuable insights than simply understanding how many transformers and substations are in service. For example, it keeps track of the whole network, from the production centre up to each and every connected consumer, details the capacity and efficiency of the network and, with the help of AI, predicts the lifecycle of parts, schedules required maintenance checks and helps design expansions. Everyone from high-level operators to workers in the field on mobile devices have one common operating picture – a true, 24-7 real-time representation of the network.

A modernised grid

Simply put, it is imperative for utility companies to join the digital age if they are to keep up with its demands. Without investing in a digital twin of their network, utilities will not be able to operate as well as they could. Utilising maps of the network and maintenance and replacement schedules is no longer enough since many of them rely on incomplete and inaccurate information from archaic paper processes.

Ultimately, the transformation of the network cannot happen without the transformation of the company itself. With up-to-date digital twin technology, utility networks will be able to achieve more efficient and cost-effective operations and guarantee an easier integration of external factors such as distributed external sources of energy.

Maximilian Weber, senior vice president of utilities & communications, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division