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The ‘extraordinarily critical question’ that most utilities aren't able to answer

Publicis Sapient CEO Nigel Vaz joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the state of utility infrastructure, how vulnerable community utilities are from extreme weather events, and the opportunities clean energy may provide.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: So it wasn't too long ago that a lot of people in Texas were having to deal with frigid, record cold temperatures after they lost electricity, which brings up the question about what kind of threats does the electric grid, although, Texas has on its own grid, pose and what kind of reliability do we have?

So let's bring into the stream, Nigel Vaz from Publicis Sapient. He's the CEO. And we should point out that, in partnership with Energy Central and Appos, you conducted a survey about threats to electricity reliability back during the summer of 2021. Where do we stand today as we are now in the winter of 2022 about the threats to our electric reliability? I mean, our world can't live without it.

NIGEL VAZ: Yeah, and you're absolutely right, Adam. And when you think about the survey results, right, 1% of US utility surveyed indicated they were fully prepared to provide accurate times of restoration following an extreme weather event. And 2% said that they were prepared to gather data from customers.

So we're a long way from where we want to be considering the fact that extreme weather now is causing an increased number of outages across the United States but also across the world. And unfortunately, a lot of the research shows that customers have been significantly affected for the most part are from disadvantaged communities that are affected the most.

And when you think about all of us as people, right, we in our lives are reliant on energy and power ever more than it's ever been before. And today, we as customers really care about our utility company at two times. First, when there's an outage. And secondly, when we have a wrong bill.

So frankly, the most important thing is customers want to know when there's an outage is when will the power come back? And the reality is right now, most utilities don't actually have a accurate way of sharing this information. Then put that into perspective, right? Our expectation as consumers is being shaped by standing in the rain waiting for a taxi is not good enough.

You know, today, our phone will tell us exactly how far Uber is. And it'll tell us how far Uber is factoring all the kind of traffic information. So when you call your utility and say when's the power coming back on and they can't give you an accurate answer, that's not good enough.

And largely with the work that we do in our utilities and energy practice, we find that systems that bring all of this data together fundamentally to help them become a digital organization is just not where they're at today. They've got too many different systems-- data fragmentation across the enterprise which leaves them vulnerable to not being able to answer that extraordinarily critical question.

EMILY MCCORMICK: So Nigel, based on your findings, how long would it take to conduct this type of modernization that you're talking about to actually implement proper preparedness and data to be able to talk about these restoration times in an accurate manner? And what would the cost be to utilities?

NIGEL VAZ: I think the first thing, you have to break this down in two parts, right? First is we've got to start to modernize the grid. We need a much smarter grid, and we need to be able to collect data from all of the devices on this grid to understand how they're performing in real time and doing some sort of scenario planning to estimate risk and response time. And we don't have that.

And that is, of course, an effort that's underway in many parts of the country and many parts of the world. But that's a multi-year journey. The second piece, which I think is something that a lot of the utility companies have got to start to focus on today, is actually how do they actually start to bring together all of the data they have about their customers into a single space?

And these are our problems that can be solved in a matter of months in some cases and specific contexts, perhaps, years. And the cost relative to the impact of not meeting service levels that utilities have and losing customers to unreliable service is a fraction of that. So frankly speaking, I think a lot of the work needs to start with these two areas.

And while it is happening, I feel like fundamentally, one of the biggest challenges you have is this is a part of our ecosystem similar to where banks were a few years ago that has just not moved into the digital world. A lot of these businesses are still running with large computing systems that were built to be standalone and oftentimes decentralized not in the cloud and certainly not connected across their enterprise.

ADAM SHAPIRO: As we wrap this up, what faith do you have? I mean, we're about to spend billions and billions of dollars from the infrastructure bill to address these kinds of issues. What faith do you have that they will be addressed in a timely fashion?

NIGEL VAZ: I think timely, Adam, is the critical word, right, because I feel like they will be addressed eventually. These customers aren't going to stand for the fact that they can lose power and not know when it's going to come back on. But the reality is how quickly and efficiently we can do this relies on these businesses recognizing that as the world becomes increasingly digital from a Publicis Sapient perspective, a lot of the work we do across industries is helping enterprise customers move into this digital space and really become digital businesses. And that starts with the two areas we were talking about earlier.

ADAM SHAPIRO: We wish you the best and thank you for joining us. Nigel Vaz is the Publicis Sapient CEO--