Dan Jeavons

Mission possible: helping transform energy with digital tech

Ahead of his Web Summit masterclass with Tom Siebel, Shell’s Dan Jeavons reflects on the shifting sands of AI and big data.

By Claire Daly on Oct 14, 2022

“I knew I was never going to be the best coder,” says Dan Jeavons, a somewhat surprising statement for the Vice-President for Digitalisation and Computational Science at Shell who leads a team of 280 tech experts.

But being aware of what he is not so good at is actually a superpower, Jeavons tells me as we sit down to talk during a rare quiet moment of his blistering schedule.

“From early in my career I could see others around me who were better at what they were doing. So in finding out what I wasn’t, I found out what I was - good at distilling large quantities of information and then making the connections.”

Now leading the digital transformation which is playing an integral part in Shell’s net-zero ambition, Dan has gone from what he calls a “punkish outlier”, to a core part of a traditionally slow-moving business. And using this power to take large quantities of information – or data – and look for patterns that will find better ways of doing things is the essence of Jeavons’ success. Or rather, as he insists, that of his team.

And the desire to surround himself with the smartest thinkers continues as Dan teams up with Tom Siebel, CEO of C3.ai, an artificial intelligence software platform and applications company. In November they are holding a masterclass at Web Summit in Lisbon focusing on how digital transformation marks a radical rethinking of an organisation, ‘that touches on all processes, people, and technology to fundamentally enhance business performance’.

Changing energy

Today, Shell is increasing safety and efficiency across its operations by better use of data throughout the company.

With at least 3 trillion rows of data on its data lake, Shell’s Predictive Maintenance programme has more than 13,000 pieces of equipment monitored by AI. This means that operations can run more smoothly and reduce the number of system stoppages, which cost time and money.

And reductions in carbon emissions have been made by optimising the process around producing and supplying liquified natural gas (LNG) trains – at one plant it reduced carbon emissions at by around 355 tonnes a day when the plant is operating at full capacity.

But Dan says his biggest satisfaction is seeing Shell get behind a net-zero strategy that he signed up to from the get-go.

“When I started out I had a bigger purpose, being fundamentally deeply worried about the world we are leaving our children. So, it was music to my ears when Shell’s Powering Progress strategy came along.”

“Because pushing harder to find better ways to operate in the world that is coming is key,” Jeavons says.

 

Dancing on my own

Getting to this point within ten years has been an interesting journey, Jeavons explains.

“For me, it has always been about being part of a viral movement, growing from the bottom up,” he says. “At the start we were a really small group about five or six of us dancing on our own within Shell, like that YouTube video where a man is dancing on his own, and then there are two people, then four and so on all in sync.”

In 2013 Dan began building a team to see how Shell could reap more value from advanced analytics.

“I had help from some pretty visionary executives – Alisa Choong, who led our technical and competitive IT business unit at the time, was one who got it and backed me,” he says.

“I hired a statistician and an engineer, and we started building stuff. A lot of it failed but I was given the time to try, and also smash into a few walls – eventually one worked. That project paid for itself in six weeks. Suddenly we went from ‘Dan’s little hobby horse’ to: OK, this is actually saving us money…”

But how did he manage to get an organisation of around 80,000 employees in more than 70 countries around the world put his plans into action.

“When you’re dealing with a sector that has to think about safety every waking moment, you need a safe place to experiment with doing things differently. A sandbox – where it’s OK to fail,” Dan explains.

In the past there were empirical models, where data came from watching what had happened and then applying lessons of the past to fix problems of the future. Now, with “digital twins”, Dan says, it is possible to create an exact replica of a plant or facility virtually. “Play the scenario and see the outcomes. Rewind then play again with a different set and scenarios, and keep doing this until we get it right.”

Digitalisation is one of the key ways to accelerate the energy transition, says Jeavons. “Because reliability, integrity and optimisation are as relevant to wind farms, solar farms, battery storage and hydrogen facilities as they are to gas plants and refineries.”

Using data around the use of electric vehicles means charging can be optimised to place less burden on the grid for example. Shell is also using blockchain to trace and verify the provenance of energy created from renewable sources – so energy users know where their energy has come from. And a recent pilot project is Avelia - a blockchain project between Shell, Accenture, and American Express Global Business Travel which is aimed at increasing the availability and use of sustainable aviation fuel. 

Dan’s team works a lot with others companies. Microsoft, C3.ai, Baker Hughes and Shell are founding members of the Open AI Energy Initiative. This first-of-its-kind programme shares AI knowhow and finds ways to exchange digital technology to help solve tough problems within the energy industry – making sure assets run as efficiently as possible and improving maintenance, for example.

Spreading the word

Outside the ‘tech bubble’, does anyone really get what he is trying to do, I ask him.

“This is on me,” he says. “I have been immersed in the latest digital technology for more than a decade. Part of my job is to make the harder digital technologies simple to understand and explain what impact they can have.”

“But I’d love for things to go faster,” he admits.

“Most of the time the technology is the easy bit. The challenge is driving change in the way people work or interact and that’s much harder."

With almost ten years under his belt at the forefront of change in the energy industry, does Jeavons know what the next ten might look like for digital transformation?

“I can tell you what might be possible, but I can’t tell you when it will happen,” he replies.

It sounds cryptic but it’s the one constant thing in an ever-changing digital world, he explains. “Change is speeding up.”

 And thanks to people like Dan, companies can keep up.

Join Dan Jeavons and Tom Siebel at Web Summit for a masterclass on "The Digital Transformation Imperative."

Digital transformation marks a radical rethinking of an organisation, that touches on all processes, people, and technology to fundamentally enhance business performance. What's needed to deliver digitalisation? What role can it play in accelerating and enhancing the energy transition? Where does AI fit in? And can the informational transparency afforded by digitalisation improve company nimbleness? How might technologies like digital twins and AI help unlock new opportunities for business transformation?

14:00 Friday November 4 in Masterclass room 1 at Web Summit

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