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A New Generation of Nuclear Reactors Could Hold the Key to a Green Future

Source: Time

On a conference-room whiteboard in the heart of Silicon Valley, Jacob DeWitte sketches his startup’s first product. In red marker, it looks like a beer can in a Koozie, stuck with a crazy straw. In real life, it will be about the size of a hot tub, and made from an array of exotic materials, like zirconium and uranium. Under carefully controlled conditions, they will interact to produce heat, which in turn will make electricity—1.5 megawatts’ worth, enough to power a neighborhood or a factory. DeWitte’s little power plant will run for a decade without refueling and, amazingly, will emit no carbon. ”It’s a metallic thermal battery,” he says, coyly. But more often DeWitte calls it by another name: a nuclear reactor.

Fission isn’t for the faint of heart. Building a working reactor—even a very small one—requires precise and painstaking efforts of both engineering and paper pushing. Regulations are understandably exhaustive. Fuel is hard to come by—they don’t sell uranium at the Gas-N-Sip. But DeWitte plans to flip the switch on his first reactor around 2023, a mere decade after co-founding his company, Oklo. After that, they want to do for neighborhood nukes what Tesla has done for electric cars: use a niche and expensive first version as a stepping stone toward cheaper, bigger, higher-volume products. In Oklo’s case, that means starting with a “microreactor” designed for remote communities, like Alaskan villages, currently dependent on diesel fuel trucked, barged or even flown in, at an exorbitant expense. Then building more and incrementally larger reactors until their zero-carbon energy source might meaningfully contribute to the global effort to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.

At global climate summits, in the corridors of Congress and at statehouses around the U.S., nuclear power has become the contentious keystone of carbon reduction plans. Everyone knows they need it. But no one is really sure they want it, given its history of accidents. Or even if they can get it in time to reach urgent climate goals, given how long it takes to build. Oklo is one of a growing handful of companies working to solve those problems by putting reactors inside safer, easier-to-build and smaller packages. None of them are quite ready to scale to market-level production, but given the investments being made into the technology right now, along with an increasing realization that we won’t be able to shift away from fossil fuels without nuclear power, it’s a good bet that at least one of them becomes a game changer.

If existing plants are the energy equivalent of a 2-liter soda bottle, with giant, 1,000-megawatt-plus reactors, Oklo’s strategy is to make reactors by the can. The per-megawatt construction costs might be higher, at least at first. But producing units in a factory would give the company a chance to improve its processes and to lower costs. Oklo would pioneer a new model. Nuclear plants need no longer be bet-the-company big, even for giant utilities. Venture capitalists can get behind the potential to scale to a global market. And climate hawks should fawn over a zero-carbon energy option that complements burgeoning supplies of wind and solar power. Unlike today’s plants, which run most efficiently at full blast, making it challenging for them to adapt to a grid increasingly powered by variable sources (not every day is sunny, or windy), the next generation of nuclear technology wants to be more flexible, able to respond quickly to ups and downs in supply and demand.

Engineering these innovations is hard. Oklo’s 30 employees are busy untangling the knots of safety and complexity that sent the cost of building nuclear plants to the stratosphere and all but halted their construction in the U.S. ”If this technology was brand-‘new’—like if fission was a recent breakthrough out of a lab, 10 or 15 years ago—we’d be talking about building our 30th reactor,” DeWitte says.

But fission is an old, and fraught, technology, and utility companies are scrambling now to keep their existing gargantuan nuclear plants open. Economically, they struggle to compete with cheap natural gas, along with wind and solar, often subsidized by governments. Yet climate-focused nations like France and the U.K. that had planned to phase out nuclear are instead doubling down. (In October, French President Emmanuel Macron backed off plans to close 14 reactors, and in November, he announced the country would instead start building new ones.) At the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, the U.S. announced its support for Poland, Kenya, Ukraine, Brazil, Romania and Indonesia to develop their own new nuclear plants—while European negotiators assured that nuclear energy counts as “green.” All the while, Democrats and Republicans are (to everyone’s surprise) often aligned on nuclear’s benefits—and, in many cases, putting their powers of the purse behind it, both to keep old plants open in the U.S. and speed up new technologies domestically and overseas.

It makes for a decidedly odd moment in the life of a technology that already altered the course of one century, and now wants to make a difference in another. There are 93 operating nuclear reactors in the U.S.; combined, they supply 20% of U.S. electricity, and 50% of its carbon-free electricity. Nuclear should be a climate solution, satisfying both technical and economic needs. But while the existing plants finally operate with enviable efficiency (after 40 years of working out the kinks), the next generation of designs is still a decade away from being more than a niche player in our energy supply. Everyone wants a steady supply of electricity, without relying on coal. Nuclear is paradoxically right at hand, and out of reach.

For that to change, “new nuclear” has to emerge before the old nuclear plants recede. It has to keep pace with technological improvements in other realms, like long-term energy storage, where each incremental improvement increases the potential for renewables to supply more of our electricity. It has to be cheaper than carbon-capture technologies, which would allow flexible gas plants to operate without climate impacts (but are still too expensive to build at scale). And finally it has to arrive before we give up—before the spectre of climate catastrophe creates a collective “doomerism,” and we stop trying to change.

Not everyone thinks nuclear can reinvent itself in time. “When it comes to averting the imminent effects of climate change, even the cutting edge of nuclear technology will prove to be too little, too late,” predicts Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the government agency singularly responsible for permitting new plants. Can a stable, safe, known source of energy rise to the occasion, or will nuclear be cast aside as too expensive, too risky and too late?

Trying Again

Nuclear began in a rush. In 1942, in the lowest mire of World War II, the U.S. began the Manhattan Project, the vast effort to develop atomic weapons. It employed 130,000 people at secret sites across the country, the most famous of which was Los Alamos Laboratory, near Albuquerque, N.M., where Robert Oppenheimer led the design and construction of the first atomic bombs. DeWitte, 36, grew up nearby. Even as a child of the ’90s, he was steeped in the state’s nuclear history, and preoccupied with the terrifying success of its engineering and the power of its materials. “It’s so incredibly energy dense,” says DeWitte. “A golf ball of uranium would power your entire life!”

DeWitte has taken that bromide almost literally. He co-founded Oklo in 2013 with Caroline Cochran, while both were graduate students in nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When they arrived in Cambridge, Mass., in 2007 and 2008, the nuclear industry was on a precipice. Then presidential candidate Barack Obama espoused a new eagerness to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions—which at the time meant less coal, and more nuclear. (Wind and solar energy were still a blip.) It was an easy sell. In competitive power markets, nuclear plants were profitable. The 104 operating reactors in the U.S. at the time were running smoothly. There hadn’t been a major accident since Chernobyl, in 1986.

The industry excitedly prepared for a “nuclear renaissance.” At the peak of interest, the NRC had applications for 30 new reactors in the U.S. Only two would be built. The cheap natural gas of the fracking boom began to drive down electricity prices, razing nuclear’s profits. Newly subsidized renewables, like wind and solar, added even more electricity generation, further saturating the markets. When on March 11, 2011, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami rolled over Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to the meltdown of all three of its reactors and the evacuation of 154,000 people, the industry’s coffin was fully nailed. Not only would there be no renaissance in the U.S, but the existing plants had to justify their safety. Japan shut down 46 of its 50 operating reactors. Germany closed 11 of its 17. The U.S. fleet held on politically, but struggled to compete economically. Since Fukushima, 12 U.S. reactors have begun decommissioning, with three more planned.

At MIT, Cochran and DeWitte—who were teaching assistants together for a nuclear reactor class in 2009, and married in 2011—were frustrated by the setback. ”It was like, There’re all these cool technologies out there. Let’s do something with it,” says Cochran. But the nuclear industry has never been an easy place for innovators. In the U.S., its operational ranks have long been dominated by “ring knockers”—the officer corps of the Navy’s nuclear fleet, properly trained in the way things are done, but less interested in doing them differently. Governments had always kept a tight grip on nuclear; for decades, the technology was under shrouds. The personal computing revolution, and then the wild rise of the Internet, further drained engineering talent. From DeWitte and Cochran’s perspective, the nuclear-energy industry had already ossified by the time Fukushima and fracking totally brought things to a halt. “You eventually got to the point where it’s like, we have to try something different,” DeWitte says.

He and Cochran began to discreetly convene their MIT classmates for brainstorming sessions. Nuclear folks tend to be dogmatic about their favorite method of splitting atoms, but they stayed agnostic. “I didn’t start thinking we had to do everything differently,” says DeWitte. Rather, they had a hunch that marginal improvements might yield major results, if they could be spread across all of the industry’s usual snags—whether regulatory approaches, business models, the engineering of the systems themselves, or the challenge of actually constructing them.

In 2013, Cochran and DeWitte began to rent out the spare room in their Cambridge home on Airbnb. Their first guests were a pair of teachers from Alaska. The remote communities they taught in were dependent on diesel fuel for electricity, brought in at enormous cost. That energy scarcity created an opportunity: in such an environment, even a very expensive nuclear reactor might still be cheaper than the current system. The duo targeted a price of $100 per megawatt hour, more than double typical energy costs. They imagined using this high-cost early market as a pathway to scale their manufacturing. They realized that to make it work economically, they wouldn’t have to reinvent the reactor technology, only the production and sales processes. They decided to own their reactors and supply electricity, rather than supply the reactors themselves—operating more like today’s solar or wind developers. “It’s less about the technology being different,” says DeWitte, “than it is about approaching the entire process differently.”

That maverick streak raised eyebrows among nuclear veterans—and cash from Silicon Valley venture capitalists, including a boost from Y Combinator, where companies like Airbnb and Instacart got their start. In the eight years since, Oklo has distinguished itself from the competition by thinking smaller and moving faster. There are others competing in this space: NuScale, based in Oregon, is working to commercialize a reactor similar in design to existing nuclear plants, but constructed in 60-megawatt modules. TerraPower, founded by Bill Gates in 2006, has plans for a novel technology that uses its heat for energy storage, rather than to spin a turbine, which makes it an even more flexible option for electric grids that increasingly need that pliability. And X-energy, a Maryland-based firm that has received substantial funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, is developing 80-megawatt reactors that can also be grouped into “four-packs,” bringing them closer in size to today’s plants. Yet all are still years—and a billion dollars—away from their first installations. Oklo brags that its NRC application is 20 times shorter than NuScale’s, and its proposal cost 100 times less to develop. (Oklo’s proposed reactor would produce one-fortieth the power of NuScale’s.) NRC accepted Oklo’s application for review in March 2020, and regulations guarantee that process will be complete within three years. Oklo plans to power on around 2023, at a site at the Idaho National Laboratory, one of the U.S.’s oldest nuclear-research sites, and so already approved for such efforts. Then comes the hard part: doing it again and again, booking enough orders to justify building a factory to make many more reactors, driving costs down, and hoping politicians and activists worry more about the menace of greenhouse gases than the hazards of splitting atoms.

Nuclear-industry veterans remain wary. They have seen this all before. Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor, first approved by the NRC in 2005, was touted as the flagship technology of Obama’s nuclear renaissance. It promised to be safer and simpler, using gravity rather than electricity-driven pumps to cool the reactor in case of an emergency—in theory, this would mitigate the danger of power outages, like the one that led to the Fukushima disaster. Its components could be constructed at a centralized location, and then shipped in giant pieces for assembly.

But all that was easier said than done. Westinghouse and its contractors struggled to manufacture the components according to nuclear’s mega-exacting requirements and in the end, only one AP1000 project in the U.S. actually happened: the Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in Georgia. Approved in 2012, its two reactors were expected at the time to cost $14 billion and be completed in 2016 and 2017, but costs have ballooned to $25 billion. The first will open, finally, next year.

Oklo and its competitors insist things are different this time, but they have yet to prove it. “Because we haven’t built one of them yet, we can promise that they’re not going to be a problem to build,” quips Gregory Jaczko, a former NRC chair who has since become the technology’s most biting critic. “So there’s no evidence of our failure.”

The Challenge

The cooling tower of the Hope Creek nuclear plant rises 50 stories above Artificial Island, New Jersey, built up on the marshy edge of the Delaware River. The three reactors here—one belonging to Hope Creek, and two run by the Salem Generating Station, which shares the site—generate an astonishing 3,465 megawatts of electricity, or roughly 40% of New Jersey’s total supply. Construction began in 1968, and was completed in 1986. Their closest human neighbors are across the river in Delaware. Otherwise the plant is surrounded by protected marshlands, pocked with radiation sensors and the occasional guard booth. Of the 1,500 people working here, around 100 are licensed reactor operators—a special designation given by the NRC, and held by fewer than 4,000 people in the country.

Among the newest in their ranks is Judy Rodriguez, an Elizabeth, N.J., native and another MIT grad. “Do I have your permission to enter?” she asks the operator on duty in the control room for the Salem Two reactor, which came online in 1981 and is capable of generating 1,200 megawatts of power. The operator opens a retractable belt barrier, like at an airport, and we step across a thick red line in the carpet. A horseshoe-shaped gray cabinet holds hundreds of buttons, glowing indicators and blinking lights, but a red LED counter at the center of the wall shows the most important number in the room: 944 megawatts, the amount of power the Salem Two reactor was generating that afternoon in September. Beside it is a circular pattern of square indicator lights showing the uranium fuel assemblies inside the core, deep inside the concrete domed containment building a couple hundred yards away. Salem Two has 764 of these constructions; each is about 6 inches sq and 15 ft. tall. They contain the source of the reactor’s energy, which are among the most guarded and controlled materials on earth. To make sure no one working there forgets that fact, a phrase is painted on walls all around the plant: “Line of Sight to the Reactor.”

As the epitome of critical infrastructure, this station has been buffeted by the crises the U.S. has suffered in the past few decades. After 9/11, the three reactors here absorbed nearly $100 million in security upgrades. Everyone entering the plant passes through metal- and explosives detectors, and radiation detectors on the way out. Walking between the buildings entails crossing a concrete expanse beneath high bullet resistant enclosures (BREs). The plant has a guard corp that has more members than any in New Jersey besides the state police, and federal NRC rules mean that they don’t have to abide by state limitations on automatic weapons.

The scale and complexity of the operation is staggering—and expensive. ”The place you’re sitting at right now costs us about $1.5 million to $2 million a day to run,” says Ralph Izzo, president and CEO of PSEG, New Jersey’s public utility company, which owns and operates the plants. “If those plants aren’t getting that in market, that’s a rough pill to swallow.” In 2019, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities agreed to $300 million in annual subsidies to keep the three reactors running. The justification is simple: if the state wants to meet its carbon-reduction goals, keeping the plants online is essential, given that they supply 90% of the state’s zero-carbon energy. In September, the Illinois legislature came to the same conclusion as New Jersey, approving almost $700 million over five years to keep two existing nuclear plants open. The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes $6 billion in additional support (along with nearly $10 billion for development of future reactors). Even more is expected in the broader Build Back Better bill.

These subsidies—framed in both states as “carbon mitigation credits”—acknowledge the reality that nuclear plants cannot, on their own terms, compete economically with natural gas or coal. “There has always been a perception of this technology that never was matched by reality,” says Jaczko. The subsidies also show how climate change has altered the equation, but not decisively enough to guarantee nuclear’s future. Lawmakers and energy companies are coming to terms with nuclear’s new identity as clean power, deserving of the same economic incentives as solar and wind. Operators of existing plants want to be compensated for producing enormous amounts of carbon free energy, according to Josh Freed, of Third Way, a Washington, D.C., think tank that champions nuclear power as a climate solution. “There’s an inherent benefit to providing that, and it should be paid for.” For the moment, that has brought some assurance to U.S. nuclear operators of their future prospects. “A megawatt of zero-carbon electricity that’s leaving the grid is no different from a new megawatt of zero carbon electricity coming onto the grid,” says Kathleen Barrón, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs and public policy at Exelon, the nation’s largest operator of nuclear reactors.

Globally, nations are struggling with the same equation. Germany and Japan both shuttered many of their plants after the Fukushima disaster, and saw their progress at reducing carbon emissions suffer. Germany has not built new renewables fast enough to meet its electricity needs, and has made up the gap with dirty coal and natural gas imported from Russia. Japan, under international pressure to move more aggressively to meet its carbon targets, announced in October that it would work to restart its reactors. “Nuclear power is indispensable when we think about how we can ensure a stable and affordable electricity supply while addressing climate change,” said Koichi Hagiuda, Japan’s minister of economy, trade and industry, at an October news conference. China is building more new nuclear reactors than any other country, with plans for as many as 150 by the 2030s, at an estimated cost of nearly half a trillion dollars. Long before that, in this decade, China will overtake the U.S. as the operator of the world’s largest nuclear-energy system.

The future won’t be decided by choosing between nuclear or solar power. Rather, it’s a technically and economically complicated balance of adding as much renewable energy as possible while ensuring a steady supply of electricity. At the moment, that’s easy. “There is enough opportunity to build renewables before achieving penetration levels that we’re worried about the grid having stability,” says PSEG’s Izzo. New Jersey, for its part, is aiming to add 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind by 2035—or about the equivalent of six new Salem-sized reactors. The technology to do that is readily at hand—Kansas alone has about that much wind power installed already.

The challenge comes when renewables make up a greater proportion of the electricity supply—or when the wind stops blowing. The need for “firm” generation becomes more crucial. “You cannot run our grid solely on the basis of renewable supply,” says Izzo. “One needs an interseasonal storage solution, and no one has come up with an economic interseasonal storage solution.”

Existing nuclear’s best pitch—aside from the very fact it exists already—is its “capacity factor,” the industry term for how often a plant meets its full energy making potential. For decades, nuclear plants struggled with outages and long maintenance periods. Today, improvements in management and technology make them more likely to run continuously—or “breaker to breaker”—between planned refuelings, which usually occur every 18 months, and take about a month. At Salem and Hope Creek, PSEG hangs banners in the hallways to celebrate each new record run without a maintenance breakdown. That improvement stretches across the industry. “If you took our performance back in the mid-’70s, and then look at our performance today, it’s equivalent to having built 30 new reactors,” says Maria Korsnick, president and CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobbying organization. That improved reliability has become its major calling card today.

Over the next 20 years, nuclear plants will need to develop new tricks. “One of the new words in our vocabulary is flexibility,” says Marilyn Kray, vice president of nuclear strategy and development at Exelon, which operates 21 reactors. “Flexibility not only in the existing plants, but in the designs of the emerging ones, to make them even more flexible and adaptable to complement renewables.” Smaller plants can adapt more easily to the grid, but they can also serve new customers, like providing energy directly to factories, steel mills or desalination plants.

Bringing those small plants into operation could be worth it, but it won’t be easy.”You can’t just excuse away the thing that’s at the center of all of it, which is it’s just a hard technology to build,” says Jaczko, the former NRC chair. “It’s difficult to make these plants, it’s difficult to design them, it’s difficult to engineer them, it’s difficult to construct them. At some point, that’s got to be the obvious conclusion to this technology.”

But the equally obvious conclusion is we can no longer live without it. “The reality is, you have to really squint to see how you get to net zero without nuclear,” says Third Way’s Freed. “There’s a lot of wishful thinking, a lot of fingers crossed.”

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Business

Taking Financial Services to the Edge

Source: Finance Derivative

Authored by Pascal Holt, Director of Marketing, Iceotope

Edge computing, cloud, and AI are changing the competitive landscape for financial service organisations. In a highly sophisticated and digitally mature market, speed and efficiency have become paramount to securing an advantage in retaining customers and maximising profits.

For traditional retail banks, edge computing creates opportunities to improve customer service, reduce costs, and ensure regulatory compliance. It also enables banks to personalise their services by processing data quickly and effectively. These real-time analytics translate to bespoke value-added services that provide the customer with exactly what they need.

Pascal Holt

High frequency trading firms utilise edge computing to maximise profits on high-volume, low-margin trades. Edge computing brings computation and data storage closer to where the data is being generated.

Reducing latency issues can help a firm gain a competitive advantage in high-speed order execution.

Defining the edge

The edge is the physical location where things and people connect with the networked digital world and it’s changing the way we process data. We are moving towards a more interactive world. Data is no longer merely being pushed towards us on our devices, but rather it’s being collected or “pulled” from our interactions with Internet of Things sensors we encounter in our daily lives.

As a result, the data centre is rapidly changing to no longer be the centre of data. The need to handle, manipulate, communicate, store and retrieve data efficiently is moving processing capacity closer to the user than ever before. This phenomenon is known as “data gravity” and draws the physical location of digital infrastructure closer to the data source itself. This creates a new set of challenges – and opportunities – for financial service organisations.

Changing the competitive landscape

Financial firms are not only adopting cloud-based technology to deliver a much better service for their clients, but they are doing so to remain relevant. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one such example. For processing simple, repetitive tasks or extracting insights from large amounts of data, AI applications, in combination with edge computing, have the power to create significant competitive advantages.

Management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, estimates that AI technologies could potentially deliver up to $1 trillion of additional value each year for global banks. They found that AI could “help boost revenues through increased personalization of services to customers (and employees); lower costs through efficiencies generated by higher automation, reduced errors rates, and better resource utilization; and uncover new and previously unrealized opportunities based on an improved ability to process and generate insights from vast troves of data.”

A more personal customer experience

Technologies like AI, machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) utilise the cloud but require edge computing for processing data closer to where the data is generated. For traditional retail banking firms, that creates an opportunity to improve customer service while reducing costs.

Going back to our “push” vs “pull” discussion, retail banking has historically been very much in the push category. All customers are given the same product information, regardless of whether it is relevant to them or not. With edge computing, the data gathered helps the bank better understand individual financial needs enabling them to customise advertising and product offerings accordingly.

HSBC is taking this type of customisation one step further with Pepper, a semi-humanoid robot, operating in several branches in the US. Pepper uses NLP to interact with customers. The data intelligence needed for Pepper to successfully and beneficially engage with human customers also requires real-time, low-latency analysis of large quantities of data. All of which is easily served through edge computing.

While Pepper may be a fun way to engage with customers, there are plenty of other use cases for edge computing in banking and financial services. Security and fraud detection/prevention is critically important as unauthorised financial fraud losses across payment cards, remote banking and cheques totalled £360.8 million in H1 2022, according to UK Finance. There is also a significant regulatory burden on modern banking and edge computing enables real-time monitoring of compliance to those regulations required by law.

Challenges ahead

Many banks have net zero targets they are trying to achieve by 2030. The Big Six US banks have announced a variation of carbon neutral and net zero plans in the last two years. In addition, the UN-backed Net Zero Banking Alliance is bringing together more than 100 banks from 40 countries to align their lending and investment portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050.

From a data centre perspective – whether that be in the cloud, on-premises, in colocation, or at the edge – technology solutions are available today to help achieve these goals. Advanced liquid cooling solutions can achieve a 1.03 PUE or below. Precision immersion liquid cooling, for example, captures >95% of server heat inside the chassis, significantly reducing energy costs and emissions associated with server cooling.

Water consumption is negligible as little to no mechanical chilling is required.

Beyond sustainability, there are some unique considerations for edge computing. IT computing loads are usually required to operate reliably in locations not built specifically for IT equipment. Whether it is indoors around people or in harsh external environments, the equipment needs to be purpose built for edge computing. With precision immersion liquid cooling, the sealed chassis form factor provides the same kind of protected environmentally controlled conditions found in a data centre facility. It is also designed to withstand all types of IT environments with minimal impact on its local surroundings.

Edge computing is just starting to make an impact on the financial services industry. As technology continues to improve customer service and increase competitive advantages, it will become more important than ever for organisations to have the right solutions in place to enable those opportunities.

Many of these applications are pushing the limits of existing technologies and opening the door to new alternatives. Now is the time for organisations to take a bold step and embrace these new technologies.

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Business

Accounting Automation in the Future

Source: Finance Derivative

Accounting automation is the process of streamlining repetitive tasks in financial processes. For example, some processes like invoicing are time-consuming and repetitive. Automation can reduce manual labor and save businesses both time and money. Also, it helps improve accuracy, reduces errors, and provides more accurate financial reporting.

Accounting automation in the future will be increasingly important for businesses to stay competitive. But every new change comes with both advantages and challenges. Let’s dive in to get ready for this future trend.

Potential Future Benefits of Accounting Automation

Increased Efficiency and Cost Savings

Accounting automation is a great way to increase efficiency and cost savings. For example, AI bookkeeping uses advanced algorithms to automate many accounting tasks. So, companies can track expenses, prepare financial reports, and more using AI.

It reduces the time needed for manual entry. So, businesses can spend fewer labor hours on tedious processes. They can increase efficiency by freeing up resources for more strategic work. It also helps reduce errors and inconsistencies associated with manual processes. So, the cost of compliance is lower because of greater accuracy.

Improved Accuracy and Reliability

Accounting automation can improve accuracy and reliability in accounting processes. For example, Automating bank reconciliation is less prone to errors from human mistakes or miscalculations. You can automate the process to identify discrepancies between the bank statement and accounting records. It helps to ensure that financial reports remain accurate and reliable. So businesses can take corrective action faster than processing data manually.

Streamlined Business Processes

Streamlined business processes involve eliminating unnecessary steps, reducing paperwork, and automating repetitive tasks. This allows businesses to focus on higher-value activities, such as developing new products, improving customer service, and developing strategic plans for the future.

Making a Better Decision

Accounting automation can enhance decision-making in 3 ways.

1. It enables businesses to access real-time information from multiple systems. So they can identify trends for better decision-making.
2. Automated accounting also helps with forecasting, budgeting, and auditing tasks. It enables businesses to be more proactive in their decision-making processes.
3. Also, automated accounting tools can integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. They can manage data across the enterprise and make concise decisions that are favorable to the company as a whole.

Increase Customer Satisfaction

Accounting automation can help businesses increase customer satisfaction by streamlining their processes and providing a more efficient customer experience. For example:
4. Automated accounting systems can automate tedious manual tasks such as invoicing, data entry, and payroll processing. This allows businesses to focus on other aspects of their operations that are more important for customer service.
5. Automated accounting systems can also provide customers with more accurate and timely financial information. The information can help them make better decisions about their finances.
6. Also, accounting automation enables businesses to respond quickly to customer inquiries. It helps reduce wait times and improve the overall customer experience. So, you can build better relationships with their customers.

Improved Accessibility

Accounting automation takes place online or comes with cloud-based solutions. So, you can access your information and do your job from anywhere instead of being confined to one spot.

Challenges to Implementing Accounting Automation in the Future

Cost of Technology Infrastructure Upgrades

Automating an accounting system often requires businesses to invest in new hardware and software, such as servers and other associated equipment. These upgrades come with a hefty price tag that may be difficult for small businesses to afford.

There are also extra costs, such as installation fees, setup charges, software licensing fees, cloud storage costs, and maintenance fees.

Training Requirements for Staff Members

Accounting automation involves using advanced technology to automate certain processes. So, it creates a need for trained staff members who can handle the new technology. Training requirements vary depending on the type of software used.

Some common training includes record-keeping procedures, software applications, and troubleshooting skills.

Regulatory Compliance Issues

Accounting automation can be a time-saver, but it also requires firms to be aware of the applicable rules and regulations. Companies must ensure that their automated systems are compliant with relevant laws and regulations such as Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS), and other applicable accounting standards.

Besides, they must also comply with legal requirements related to taxes, financial statements, and other reporting obligations.

So, businesses must consider the complexities of regulatory compliance when automating accounting.

Security and Data Protection Concerns

As businesses move their accounting processes to the cloud, they are exposed to a wide range of potential security risks. Data breaches can cause significant damage to the business’s financial and reputational integrity. Besides, the complexity of automated accounting systems can make it difficult to identify and detect suspicious activities or errors in the system.

To ensure data is kept secure, businesses must have strong measures in place to protect against unauthorized access, encryption, and regular backups of data.

Furthermore, companies must train their staff on the proper use of the system. It helps staff to know how to protect confidential information from being accessed or misused by unauthorized personnel.

Businesses may also need an experienced IT team to monitor and maintain the system to keep up with any changes or updates for optimal performance.

Final thoughts

Accounting automation has come a long way in the past few decades. It is likely to continue to advance in the future. As technology continues to evolve, more businesses will likely begin taking advantage of automation in their accounting processes. So, businesses should be aware of the potential challenges and prepare to stay competitive.

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Business

How banks can help customers during the cost of living crisis

Source: Finance Derivative

Lavanya Kaul Head of BFSI, UK & Ireland, LTI Mindtree

Surging energy and food prices are significantly driving up household expenditure, which means living standards in the UK will fall to 2.2% this year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. This is the biggest drop in any single financial year since the records began in 1956-57.

It’s a tough situation for many consumers who are still struggling with financial hardship following redundancies and pay freezes from the pandemic. According to TSB’s Money Confidence Barometer, 82% of people have experienced an increase in the day-to-day cost of living. This resulted in almost a quarter of them using their savings, while one in five changed their usual spending habits and behaviours.

As the financial situation worsens, consumers are increasingly relying on their banks for help and support. But, while banks can’t control inflation, energy or food prices, they can play a more supportive role by adapting their services to offer stronger customer service, better tools for financial management and be more flexible with loan repayments.

Strengthen customer service with intuitive AI solutions

Since the pandemic, consumers have changed the way they bank, using more mobile apps for primary banking rather than going into physical branches. This provided an opportunity for banks to accelerate their investment in digital services including automation and offer customers more support during the cost of living crisis.

Effective tools include AI-powered chatbots which respond intelligently to customer enquiries to quickly help troubleshoot problems and provide useful advice. But to be successful, you need to ensure you strike the right balance between an efficient and convenient process and creating a personalised experience. Customers need to feel like you understand and care about their problems and are here to help, rather than just fobbing them off with a monosyllabic bot. To avoid this, banks need to embrace intuitive AI solutions to ensure that empathy comes across in all automated interactions with customers. While doing that, messaging is key. In times of stress, we don’t function as well and financial struggles are a huge stressor. The clearer the message and the simpler the instructions, the better.

Financial education, when combined with technology solutions such as open banking, can offer more long-term solutions for people to navigate their finances. This can help put more information into the hands of the consumer to help them grasp their financial situation better. Some banks have cracked this with innovative solutions like HSBC’s Financial fitness score tool that can analyse your money habits and signpost you towards ways to improve your financial health. This may include joining one of the financial education webinars run by the bank or having a ‘financial health check’ with a member of staff.

Launch money management features & apps

Introducing money management features and apps to increase the visibility of a customer’s financial situation, empowers them with the information they need to make smarter choices.

TSB offers Spend & Save and Spend & Save Plus current accounts which include a savings pot that enables customers to put extra money aside when they can and an auto-balancer feature that automatically transfers money from the savings pot into their current account if their balance falls below a certain level. This allows them to start building up savings and protects them from unnecessary overdraft charges.

Personal financial management (PFM) apps also help customers get a better understanding of their finances. These connect with a customer’s bank account and enable them to keep a close eye on their spending habits and track upcoming bill payments. An example is Prism, a PFM app which allows customers to manage bill payments by sending them reminders about due dates. It also provides a summary of their income, account balance and monthly expenses at a glance, therefore consolidating all their financial information in one place and saving time on bill payments.

Lloyd’s Banking Group and HSBC launched a subscription management tool for all customers on mobile, allowing them to see and cancel recurring card payments for things like TV subscription services. HSBC says that during the first quarter of the year, it led to customers dumping around 200,000 subscriptions.

Introduce payment holidays

While improved customer service and financial management tools are important support tactics, they might not be enough for more vulnerable customers. For example, those who are about to default on mortgage payments or loans due to redundancy or periods of ill health need banks to do more, like offering payment holidays. Banks relaxed the rules for payment holidays during the pandemic, so they should consider doing it again to help more vulnerable customers through the crisis. Customers need to understand that they are not alone when experiencing financial difficulties and that help is available

Ride out the crisis together

As inflation reaches a 30-year high, customers are now more reliant than ever on banks for guidance and support. But to provide the right level of service, they need to move away from their traditional ways and behave more like technology companies by embracing automated solutions to create the right products and services for customers. Then layer on top of that the need for more personalised and empathetic customer interactions, as well as consider additional support for more vulnerable customers.

While we don’t know how long the cost of living crisis will last, what we do know is that the pressure on household finances is likely to get worse before it gets better. Therefore, banks need to step up, be the supportive partner and do whatever they can to help customers. After all, the only way we can ride out the crisis is by supporting each other and working together.

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