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Proactive Risk Management For Utilities: Why Does It Matter?

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As utilities face an increasingly complex and uncertain environment, adopting proactive risk management practices is not just beneficial — it is essential for resilience and success.

In many ways, the utility industry is the backbone of the UK’s economy,  delivering critical services such as water, electricity, and natural gas to homes and businesses across the nation. Hundreds of thousands of businesses and organisations — not to mention millions of households — depend on the ability of utility firms to maintain operational continuity. For instance, when a data centre suffers downtime due to a power failure, it can cost the business an average of  $9,000 per minute. In high-risk sectors like healthcare, an outage can cost $5 million per hour

Apart from avoiding the financial cost of disruption, utilities need to implement risk management procedures as part of their moral and legal obligation to the public. Utilities provide services essential to public health and safety; a disruption could endanger the well-being and lives of people dependent on water and energy. 

Whatever the case, proactive risk management in the energy sector is a necessary investment — not just as a defensive manoeuvre but also as a strategic imperative. In this guide, we delve into the essence of proactive risk management within the utility industry, highlighting its pivotal role in steering these entities through the turbulent waters of contemporary business risks and societal expectations.

Related Reading: An Introduction To Risk Assessments

What Is Risk Management In The Utilities Sector

Risk management in the utilities sector encompasses a strategic set of practices and methods designed to identify, assess, and mitigate risks that could potentially disrupt the critical services they provide. Given the essential nature of utilities — such as water, electricity, and gas — the sector faces a unique set of challenges, including the physical threats from climate change, regulatory compliance demands, technological vulnerabilities, and market fluctuations. 

Effective risk management involves a thorough analysis of potential risks, the implementation of protective measures, and the development of response strategies to ensure continuous service provision. Utilities engage in this complex process to maintain infrastructure integrity, manage financial exposure, ensure safety, meet environmental and regulatory standards, and ultimately safeguard public trust and welfare in the face of both predictable and unforeseen threats.

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Understanding The 5 Main Types Of Risks In The Utilities Sector

1. Operational Risks 

Operational risks in the utility sector refer to the potential for failure in the day-to-day operations, which, in turn, could lead to service disruptions. These risks typically result from a wide range of factors, including: 

  • Equipment Failure: For instance, a critical piece of infrastructure like a transformer could fail, leading to widespread power outages.
  • Human Error: Human error can lead to operational mistakes such as incorrect handling of equipment, failure to follow procedures, or oversight in monitoring systems, which can cause outages or service disruptions. 
  • Supply Chain Disruptions: A breakdown in the supply chain could delay critical repairs or maintenance, leading to extended service interruptions.

These operational failures can have dramatic consequences, affecting everything from individual households to the broader economy, and therefore necessitate robust contingency and rapid response strategies.

2. Financial Risks 

Financial risks encompass the potential monetary losses that utilities may encounter due to factors such as volatile energy markets, changes in regulatory policies, or shifts in customer demand patterns. 

For instance, the Russia-Ukraine war led to soaring inflation in the EU, which imports 41% of its natural gas from Russia. Inflation in the region hit its highest level in the past 25 years, rocking the economy and triggering fears of a recession. 

Utilities are particularly sensitive to shifts in commodity prices, which can significantly alter production costs and affect profitability. Moreover, stringent regulations or fines for non-compliance with environmental standards can impose additional financial burdens. The utility sector must employ comprehensive financial risk management strategies to hedge against market volatility and ensure fiscal stability.

3. Environmental Risks 

Environmental risks are increasingly at the forefront of risk management in the utilities sector. These risks include the direct impact of climate change, manifested through severe weather events such as hurricanes, floods, or droughts, which can damage infrastructure and disrupt service. 

risk graph

Source: S&P Global

Citing data from Trucost, S&P Global reports utilities face the greatest combined physical risk from climate-related threats such as storms, wildfires and water stress. The study, which evaluated potential hazards to the tangible assets of approximately 15,000 publicly listed companies, reveals the utility sector’s susceptibility to physical climate risks surpasses that of other sectors with heavy capital investment, such as industrial manufacturing, oil and gas, and real estate.

Utilities must integrate environmental risk assessment into their overall risk management to anticipate and respond to these challenges effectively.

4. Technological Risks 

Technological risks involve threats associated with the adoption and dependence on new technologies, as well as vulnerabilities to cyber-attacks. As utilities modernise their grid systems and incorporate smart technologies, they become susceptible to cyber threats that can result in data breaches or take control of critical operational technology. 

A study by Skybox Security revealed a staggering 87% of utility companies reported experiencing at least one security breach over the past three years. A notable incident involved a US utility company that fell victim to a severe cyberattack, leading to the crippling of 90% of its internal systems and the permanent loss of a quarter-century’s worth of historical data.

Source: PwC

Meanwhile, PwC reports that protecting their organisations from cybersecurity threats is the top priority of chief information security officers in the energy and utilities sectors. 

5. Regulatory And Compliance Risks 

Utilities operate within a heavily regulated environment where changes in legislation can have a significant impact. Compliance risks are a major concern, as failure to meet regulatory requirements can result in fines, legal action, and damage to reputation. Additionally, utilities must navigate the complexities of environmental regulations, which can impose additional operational constraints and financial burdens.

Related Reading: How to Manage Risk: 3 Examples Of Effective Risk Management Strategies

Proactive risk management is indispensable in the utility sector, playing a critical role in safeguarding operations, ensuring financial stability, and building trust with stakeholders. CHAS, a Veriforce company, offers specialised risk management solutions for a wide range of industries, ranging from utilities, construction and manufacturing to transportation and the public sector. As a CHAS Client, you’ll get everything you need to upgrade your compliance levels under one roof. Contact us to get started. 

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Join our latest webinar regarding The Common Assessment Standard: How it could benefit your business. Presented by Alex Minett, Head of Product CHAS. 11am, 30th November 2021