Beyond the hype: making smart grids happen


Doug Preece 
By Doug Preece, Utility Specialist, Smart Energy Services, Capgemini

There is no escaping the fact smart technology has gained significant momentum in the energy and utilities space in such a short span of time that a future without smart meters, smart grids and smart home solutions is almost impossible to imagine. Utilities, traditionally slow to adapt to new market dynamics, are steadily adapting their investment strategies to incorporate smart grid, and there is a broad consensus amongst industry leaders that dollars invested in the technology are dollars spent wisely.

Whilst the battle for hearts and minds will continue to rage for years to come, utilities are now turning their attention to grappling with the next challenge on the horizon, namely the successful implementation of smart grid. As with any emerging technology, there are many potential pitfalls and several expensive mistakes that can be made throughout the process of actually implementing a smart grid. Of course blueprints exist, but all utilities are different, and developing assets that will serve that company for decades to come is a daunting task.

Deploying a smart grid is not a project; it’s not even a program. It may start as one, but it quickly evolves into something far greater. It is in fact a transformation. As utility companies across the world are increasingly discovering, the deployment of a smart grid fundamentally changes the way they generate data, present information, make decisions, execute work, and interact with their customers. Although many of these foundations are already in place, altering them to meet the new requirements a smart grid creates will present significant challenges for those responsible for deploying and operating them.

To mitigate these potential roadblocks, utilities need to address a number of critical “behind the scenes” technology-related issues early in the deployment process. Some are obvious, others less so, yet none of them can afford to be ignored. Utilities which avoid the short term approach, proven to be the scourge of the energy industry in the past, and apply themselves to the task with rigour, will be successful.

Geographic information system: the cornerstone
Remember the new Geographic Information System (GIS) put into place a decade ago? Often this is the first banana skin awaiting a utility. Frankly, if the system can pass a robust data set to an Outage Management System (OMS), has been rigorously maintained and updated over the years, and adheres to an industry integration standard, a utility can thank its lucky stars. Why? Because integrity of data from the GIS is absolutely integral to delivering a virtual representation of a reliable, robust system that can be used to make reliable operational decisions. This is exactly what smart grid is all about, and without an effective GIS, a utility will never be able to unlock its true potential.

Fortifying WAN/LAN networks
There are a number of key challenges within the WAN/LAN network infrastructure that could easily pose significant problems for a smart grid deployment. Some of these are unsurprising, security and bandwidth concerns, for example, need to be front of mind when any business technology is deployed. Others are less obvious. Boosting the robustness and resiliency of the network is essential to ensure the smooth implementation and ongoing operation of a smart grid. A robust network is difficult to break, and can be achieved through improving hardware, software, infrastructure management, transport medium, and the physical path that the medium takes. Without these essential steps, a smart grid implementation could easily fall down.

Avoiding outages
The energy delivery network (EDN) is at the core of utility distribution operations, it is the most pervasive – and the most exposed – system utilities own. The ability to effectively reconfigure the EDN to reduce the time customers experience power outages depends on the topology of that network. Reducing customer interruptions essentially boils down to two critical variables; the number of customers out of service, and the minutes they are out. Reduction of either relies on a diverse source grid topology that allows restoration of power via an alternate path. As crucial if not more, is providing adequate capacity within substations to ensure they can provide the alternate source to mitigate outages and provide load relief. In addition, utilities must ensure physical assets such as poles, wires, cross arms, brackets and insulators are electrically and physically adequate and in place to effectively support the new network. These are low-tech, ”traditional” utility issues, and potentially costly considerations in the implementation of a smart grid.

Effective architecture
Point-to-point simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to constructing a data network that can support a smart grid, and many utilities have data infrastructures based on this integration method. Service oriented architecture (SOA) allows systems to provide data to other systems “on demand”, enabling a one-to-many integration with a high level of standardization, and is a must for utilities looking to overcome this hurdle.

Business process monitoring, or management (BPM) is also a challenge. How well does a utility know and understand its existing processes? More complex still, how will they change during and after the implementation of a smart grid? The smart grid will transform how employees interact with each other, customers, information and the EDN itself. All of this interaction enables better decisions and more effective actions, but also requires an architecture that can effectively handle, organize and provide the data needed at everyone’s fingertips.

Successful legacy
Few smart grid deployments replace all involved information systems in a wholesale manner. So, the odds are there will be at least one legacy IT system integrated into a smart grid solution. These systems typically have significant constraints such as security. For example, how many personnel can access the system or how many actually possess the knowledge to detect malicious code? Constraints in field formats, field lengths and table structures can also mean data from legacy systems is difficult to adapt and integrate. Often changing these constraints is not a cost effective option, so creatively accommodating them is paramount.

There will be winners and losers when it comes to implementing smart grid solutions. Although the challenges outlined here appear precarious and difficult to overcome, ultimately utilities that rise to the challenge, grab the bull by the horns, and ensure they construct a robust, extensible solution will prosper. A medium to long term attitude is essential. Compromising on cost for short term gain, or to ease shareholder or board concerns is a one-way street to a solution that will not stand up to scrutiny for decades to come. Smart grid is a transformation, not a change. Utilities must ensure every inch of their organization is committed to achieving it.