Snam (in the picture, Stefano Venier Chief Executive Officer and General Manager) is an Italian energy infrastructure operator with a gas pipeline network of around 41,000km spread across Italy and Europe, a key asset to guaranteeing security and supply diversification. Enabling the global energy transition is a key strategic pillar for Snam, prioritized through the use of digital technology. In 2018, Snam introduced its long-term digital transformation strategy ‘SnamTEC’, with Microsoft identified as a key strategic partner in its delivery. As part of SnamTEC, the company has recently been using the power of Microsoft Azure, AI and a full stack of Azure IoT services to reduce carbon emissions and democratize its data. It is all helping Snam to meet its net zero targets forecasted for the coming decades, as it leads the way to a more sustainable future.
“I believe that, no matter what, humans must have the final judgement on impactful decisions in our industry. By providing our people with the right data, we can help make sure that those decisions are the right ones.”
Claudio Farina, Executive Vice President of Digital Transformation and Technology at Snam, is talking about one of the benefits of digitalization in technology – democratization.
“We want to use the data in our network to empower our employees to make better decisions – for our company, for themselves, and for the energy system.” he adds.
The Italian energy infrastructure operator and natural gas transporter has ambitions to be a leading player in the global energy transition towards more sustainable alternatives such as bio-methane, clean hydrogen and Carbon Capture Storage and Utilization. By 2025, the company plans to cut methane emissions by 55%, aiming to reach net-zero by 2040 and exclusively transport de-carbonised gas by 2050.
“As an energy transporter, we have a responsibility to our planet. So a key focus for us is on promoting energy efficiency,” says Farina. “We want energy to be transported and used in a more optimized way, reducing consumption, leakages and environmental costs.”
To achieve that, Snam has prioritized the use of digital technology, launching SnamTEC in 2018 – a digitalization programme aimed at increasing energy efficiency and boosting the use of more sustainable gases.
The latest SnamTEC initiative uses cloud and IoT technology to improve the efficiency of its extensive network of pipelines that span Italy.
“The complexity involved with transporting gas is growing,” Farina says. “So we need to leverage the power of digital technology to help us tackle that complexity and forge a new chapter for the company.
“Thankfully, in Microsoft, we have found a technology partner that can support us on that journey and help us achieve our goals in enabling the energy transition.”
A pioneering company in an industry undergoing rapid transformation
Headquartered in Milan, Italy, Snam is one of the world’s leading energy infrastructure operators, with almost 100 local branch offices and 22 industrial plants in Italy alone.
Founded in 1941, the company has a long tradition of pioneering new ways of transporting energy. Amongst other notable achievements, the company built the first pipe under the Mediterranean Sea, linking Sicily to Algeria and was the first to connect Western Europe to Eastern Countries during the Cold War years.
“Pioneering and innovation are in the core DNA of the company,” says Farina, “and what we’re doing now with digitalization is continuing that tradition.”
Underpinning Snam’s operation is a vast network of pipelines covering some 32,000km in Italy and another 10,000km abroad, reaching countries including Albania, Austria, France, Greece, and the UK. Those pipelines guarantee the secure supply of sustainable gas and are a key enabler in the energy transition.
“For 40 years now, our pipes have been remotely monitored by our IT systems, operating the whole of the Italian high-pressure transport network,” explains Giorgio Veronesi, Senior Vice president ICT at Snam.
“But in the last decade, the gas market has become more and more complex,” adds Veronesi, “and we believe the grid and our storage will become core assets for the energy transition. That means managing our core asset is going to become much more complex too.”
To support Snam to manage this increased complexity, the company launched SnamTEC in 2018 – a comprehensive digital transformation programme with multiple deliverables and targets.
“We decided to partner with Microsoft on SnamTEC not just to support us with today’s challenges,” says Veronesi. “We wanted a partner who would leverage our 40-year heritage to build an infrastructure for Snam fit for the next 40 years, with a very clear roadmap based on data and artificial intelligence.
“That’s why we chose Microsoft as our partner and Azure as the platform for our hybrid architecture.”
Harnessing data and IoT technology to improve reliability and security
Bringing together a disparate array of ongoing processes and data sources was the first challenge for the company. “We already had a lot of ongoing projects,” recalls Veronesi. “So a big effort was put into bringing them together into an organized, structured, monitored and controlled program.
“We started by collecting and centralizing some of the most relevant data in a distributed data platform. We have multiple processes, multiple data sources, multiple plants, and we brought these elements together into a unified ecosystem. I call it our ‘data garden’ and it involves data mesh and data lake technologies. Its purpose it to support our operational people to start looking at data as an asset.”
Establishing a platform to manage the company’s data was just the first step. After that, the company has been seeking to use that data in more and more innovative ways, in particular by using IoT and edge technologies to support data collection in the field.
“For 40 years we’ve operated our primary pipe through an electronic-based infrastructure. Now, we are enriching this core transport system with additional sensors, collecting additional data.
“We can’t stop our pipe for a single second,” he continues. “So, the challenge is how to ensure that it’s always running. That means improving our diagnostic abilities and we’re starting to use edge and IoT technology to do that, to have a deeper understanding of our engines, of our devices, to improve proactive maintenance activities and be more intelligent in anticipating the needs of our pipe, so we can keep them running every single second.”
The technology also provides Snam with a higher level of security across its pipe network. “Reliability and security are key imperatives for Snam,” says Farina.
“It is crucial that we prevent leakages, not only for the impact on the environment, but also to ensure the safety of our field workers, maintenance staff and any people living near the network.
“Real-time monitoring is an important aspect for us here,” he continues. “There are some threats that you cannot predict, so it’s super important that the right alert reaches the right person at the right time. And this is a matter of having the right process, the right technology, but also the ability to process the data with the right algorithm.
“Microsoft technology gives us this capability.”
Democratizing data and upskilling the workforce
“Today, we are collecting 10 times more data from one year to the next,” says Veronesi. “But unlocking its true power means democratization of that data across the company, so it can be used by multiple different profiles, from the operational team in the field to the leadership team at headquarters.
“Because adopting data and artificial intelligence technology shouldn’t require hiring nerdy guys like me,” he adds with a smile. “It should be about engaging all the different stakeholders and all the individuals that are part of your organization.
“There is only one way to do that: learn, learn, learn!”
To support the company with this upskilling, Snam has engaged the Microsoft Business School to ensure every single Snam worker has the right tools, skills and knowledge to use the technology the company employs.
Farina says that training has been a key part in allowing the company to become more intelligent and digitalized, especially as the company has a workforce spanning multiple generations.
“The average age of our employees is older than that of the average tech company,” he says. “The employees that have been with us for the longest are the ones who benefit the most from training. It gives access to everyone, solves a potential digital divide, and ensures no one is left behind.”
A more efficient and sustainable future for the energy sector
Through the next decade, Snam will continue to accelerate the energy transition and strive towards achieving net zero targets.
“We have an agenda of different strategies to reduce emissions, particularly when it comes to optimising energy and are transitioning towards a cleaner energy market in contribution to the global energy transition” says Farina.
Alongside its sustainability goals, the company will continue to use digital technology to make its operations more efficient.
“Next, we want to use Azure machine learning to automate thousands of micro decisions across our grid, small decision which have no big responsibility attached to them,” says Farina. “We want the grid to be much more self-automated and efficient, so our people can focus on bigger priorities.
“Working together with Microsoft, who share our values around sustainability too, we can achieve this vision.”