Integrated Electric Utility

David Kaplan, CEO & Founder, 1Energy Systems
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David Kaplan, CEO & Founder, 1Energy Systems

Our future energy system will be far more electric than today's. Electric utilities, to support this transition, must deliver more clean energy, meet rising consumer demand and upgrade aging infrastructure. To meet these challenges, utilities will make far-reaching changes in how electricity is produced, consumed and managed, requiring deep integration between utility information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) assets.

Traditionally, OT and IT have been considered distinct entities, critical to utility operations, but often implemented and managed separately.To achieve smarter electricity networks capable of meeting new demands, this separation must be reduced. Smart grid, a sometimes ambiguous concept, essentially amounts to IT/ OT integration.

On the OT side, substation automation, distribution automation, intelligent electronic devices (such as digital relays), smart metering,and emerging assets such as energy storage and distributed solar PV, augment physical infrastructure, such as poles, wires and transformers, to help utility operators keep the lights on.

Utility IT is similarly complex and diverse, with many IT systems having direct OT counterparts. For example, substation and distribution automation must be connected to control room SCADA and distribution management (DMS) platforms. Smart metering must be connected to meter data management (MDM), customer relationship management (CRM) and accounting systems. Physical assets, like poles and wires, are maintained and managed in a GIS or asset database. Generation utilities must deploy demand forecasting and historical data models. Utilities relying on external generation must integrate IT assets for power purchasing and market trading. All of these IT systems help the utility to better allocate resources, deliver timely information to employees and customers, and reduce operating costs.

Christopher Heimgartner, of Snohomish County PUD, describes the OT manager's task, and IT's essential role: "Our electric distribution system is a large network of physical, electrical and electronic devices, in which individual components must function reliably for years or decades, once they’re installed. Maintaining and enhancing this network is like doing on-site manufacturing, on a product already in operation. It's a complex process, which would be virtually impossible without the visibility we gain from software and communications. Visibility across the system means a safer, more productive work environment for our employees and better, more reliable service for our customers."

While the rationale for better IT/OT integration is straightforward, implementing new technologies within legacy systems can be complex and costly. Fortunately, utility managers have mechanisms available to ease the difficulties. Embedded automation has advanced rapidly, at diminishing cost, enabling deeper integration within utility networks. Communications technology, both wired and wireless, has also advanced rapidly, enabling connectivity from control rooms to substations and the grid edge.

To take full advantage of these technology advances, utility IT and OT managers should seek out products and technologies that embody key qualities of standardization, integration, extensibility and adoption. Standardization enables interoperability across suppliers. Integration combines best-of-breed components from different suppliers. Extensibility lets the utility, or a third party, easily customize supplier solutions to meet specific needs. Adoption brings in appropriate technology from other industries, to avoid re-inventing the wheel.

Utilities already realize these benefits in numerous ways. For example, technology standards such as DNP3 connect products from different suppliers with little or no protocol translation. The Ethernet wiring, routers and switches comprising a utility’s network communicate via the ubiquitous TCP/IP protocol. Standardized radio and cellular wireless communications connect points farther afield. Adopting non utility technologies, such as Modbus from the industrial automation world, adds new capabilities at modest cost. These benefits apply to both existing and new technologies. For example, energy storage systems (ESS) promise significant benefits to utilities, but ESS deployments to date have primarily been single purpose, one-off designs. This leads to higher costs, and makes it difficult to select best-of-breed components from multiple providers, or realize the cost benefits of volume production. A better approach is to effectively harness standards and extensibility, while integrating and adopting available technologies from other domains. This will create a growing energy storage market that benefits both utilities and their suppliers, instead of an under utilized asset class that is slow and costly to develop.

Dan Sowder, of Duke Energy, describes the importance of these factors when choosing technology directions for the utility: "Why not build-upon proven and commercially successful communication technologies and utilize them in grid applications? The new opportunities and challenges brought forth by emerging technologies such as energy storage and distributed solar will require us to increasingly combine commercial protocols, such as Ethernet, TCP/IP, and XML with utility standard protocols such as DNP3 and Modbus. This will enable us to get the most out of advanced technologies, implement them cost effectively, and build upon the existing strengths of the grid."

The integrated utility is essential to our energy future, but achieving it requires new tools. Best practices that have built large-scale industries in computing and communications are now enhancing IT/OT integration, and helping to create the cleaner, more functional energy system which the world demands.

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