The strategy of network operators: a place for innovation!

It may seem incongruous to talk about a strategy for a network operator: in fact, it operates in a regulated environment in order to operate, in a monopoly position, a network, according to rules laid down by the legislator and the energy regulator. In the first approach, one would think that it is enough for him to excel in his business.

A closer look at the current situation of European network operators reveals a more complex situation:

– The charges, integrated with the energy price, intended to cover operating and investment costs related to the network, has a significant political sensitivity. In a context of rising energy prices, it is under increasing pressure. It is now necessary for the network operator to be innovative in its strategy to sustain a quality of service that is essential to households and to the economy.

– Network users now expect monopolies to have the same level of service and competitiveness as private providers. A lack of performance can be destructive for network operators by feeding and accelerating the uberization trend.

– The culture of network operators remembers the past functioning, where energy providers were still vertically integrated. Some executives and co-workers are hardly aware of their position, now “stuck” between producers and energy suppliers.

Ensuring the sustainability of the economic and technical performance of the network operators requires a real strategy, to meet the expectations of customers, under these conditions.

In order to build such a strategy, there are several directions to investigate, depending on whether economic sustainability or customer satisfaction or both are to be achieved.

– Develop a range of services, taking care not to introduce confusion with energy services delivered by suppliers

– Extend the territory in which the manager operates: this option seems obvious in the territories where gas or electricity distribution is highly fragmented and has remained partially under the management of municipalities and cities.

– “Nibbling” responsibilities at the borders between network managers and producers on the one hand and suppliers on the other.

– Develop a position as an infrastructure specialist, favouring horizontal development (management of heat, gas and electricity distribution networks as well as storage capacities). This position makes it possible to become the privileged interlocutor of local authorities to deploy optimized energy systems. This direction is easier to follow in the case of the German Stadtwerke or the Swiss Industrial Services, which offer a very interesting experience base for this type of positioning.

All national regulations do not allow all these choices to be made today. But do not the energy transitions also concern all the arrangements to be made to evolve towards optimized energy systems? The clarification of the strategy of network operators will have a strong influence on the legislator and the regulator.

This clarification will also benefit private and industrial customers who cannot understand the evolution of the energy market in the current cacophony: how to find it when network operators communicate in commercial terms of flexibilities’ valuation, promote smart meter-based energy efficiency services and rent larger booths at major fairs than energy suppliers? Of course, they just stay at the limit of their field of responsibility, but the perception of the listener is influenced by the lack of communication on their core business, apart from smart meters (to which, I persist, most consumers give little importance).

Defining a strategy for network operators is complex as it seems necessary to get out of the known and comfort zones. Let those who claim to be innovative pave the way! The field of action is vast.

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