FROM DATA TO INFORMATION: How technology and analytics is a utility game changer


Technology and data are poised to change the nation’s electric grid in a big way. The world generated five exabytes of data-the equivalent storage of 1.25 billion DVDs-from the dawn of civilization through 2003. Now that amount is created every day.

Our industry is transforming the electric grid from the analog system of the 20th century to a smart grid to support the 21st-century digital economy.

At the center of this transformation is enormous amounts of data. Often called big data, it has been slower to penetrate the utility business than it has other sectors.

But as we continue to deploy more automated technologies, the real value proposition will be how well we parlay big data into business intelligence through data analytics.

When it comes to implementing smart grid technologies, managing and leveraging this data is the No. 1 utility challenge.


Twenty years ago, electric utilities managed assets and restored service after outages. But the traditional approach to material condition management has been based on intuition and experience, employed little or no consistency and had a bias toward completing programs that would address an entire asset population.

The new world requires a process that is repeatable across all system asset classes, provides a fact-based probability of asset failure, and allows for direct risk assessment for maintenance and infrastructure improvement activities.

Grid analytics determine asset health and when coupled with visualization applications can provide valuable information for grid operators, system engineers and capacity-planning organizations.

Smart grid should not be perceived as only the deployment of microprocessor technology, but the combination of software and hardware to understand how power system assets are performing and provide insight into the state of the grid.

Two Key Questions

This will require a significant shift of electric utility cultural norms. Information that will be provided from field devices such as microprocessor relays, distribution automation and smart meters will provide the necessary system information to shift from traditional manual system operations and a reactionary philosophy to real-time analysis. By promoting autonomous system operations or at least more informed decision-making by system operators and engineers, power system decision-making shifts to a proactive philosophy.

Across the country, new applications are being combined with operational systems to provide increased functionality to re-configure power flow, reduce system losses, decrease restoration times and automatically monitor systemwide disturbances in real time. But as all this technology innovation is rolled out, utilities must ask two questions: What information can field devices provide regarding loading, system configuration, health or probability of failure? And how can this information make operations more efficient and cost-effective?

A New Operational Philosophy

To get the answers, utilities are reassessing their entire approaches. ComEd uses technology to reduce system stress, enhance system security, reduce costs and improve reliability. The operational decisions regarding grid analytics can be summarized into four basic questions:

1. What will the right operational philosophy be for my utility?

2. Will the decision allow for future expansion (future-proof)?

3. Will the business case be positive to show customer value?

4. Will this decision improve reliability for customers?

New Collaboration Between Information Technology, Ops

This will require new collaboration between information technology and operations organizations. With the development of more advanced grid analytics, ComEd’s information technology organization has transitioned from an organization that provides a solution for customers-in the utility case, the operations organization-to a team member that has equal decision-making ability and a seat at the table. Information technology and operations are partners in the development, design and implementation of new technology. These integrated teams are active participants in determining the power system needs and innovative solutions that provide functionality, such as volt/variance, and value for customers.

ComEd’s Intelligent Substation Dashboard

An example of the information technology-operations partnership can be seen in a new visualization technology to monitor and manage ComEd’s smart substations, developed in-house by information technology and substation engineering teams. Before work began, the operations and information technology joint team answered four questions:

1. How can data from enhanced monitoring at a substation be turned into actionable information for engineers and system operators?

2. How can that information be visualized effectively in a graphical display?

4. How can measured and calculated information be used for proactive notification?

5. How can the team ensure the ease of repeatability for all future substations?

The last question is particularly important because there is no practical way the large amounts of data from 270 transmission-fed substations can be reviewed every day to find intermittent problems proactively.

The team chose a substation in ComEd’s Innovation Corridor to pilot its solution. The location represents systemwide characteristics, is where ComEd deployed a 130,000-smart meter pilot and could be included in additional analytics functionality. The substation is an older site in which ComEd replaced electromechanical relays with microprocessor relays.

In addition to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) functionalities, the microprocessor relays included breaker-monitoring features such as mechanical and electrical operating times of the main contacts and contact wear.

ComEd also installed transformer-monitoring devices on each transformer, which included load tap changing (LTC) control and online dissolved gas in oil analysis on the LTC and main tank compartments. In parallel with the conversion of the substation, the ComEd engineering and information technology teams developed a series of visualizations and tools that are represented in the figures.

One-Line Station Overview

Figure 1 depicts the typical overview of a substation created from a SCADA display conversion and includes the key components of the substation from the high-side bus, transformers and feeders. The dashboard includes key overview information regarding system assets such as MVA loading, voltage, current, breaker health and customer voltage. The displays are color-coded to bring visual attention to conditions that warrant further inspection. The transformer (TR) box, feeder (FDR) box and 12-kV bus boxes are buttons that can take users to additional device information.

1 One-Line Station
One-Line Station

Transformer Dashboard

If one of the TR boxes is selected, the transformer dashboard will be displayed for the appropriate transformer selected.

This dashboard (see Figure 2) shows the key information for a particular transformer and is pulling information from several microprocessor relays, transformer monitoring, as well using calculated data between field devices.

2 Transformer Dashboard
Transformer Dashboard

The information provides an operations and engineering user with a quick operational view of the transformer on a single page, including instantaneous percent loading, current, voltage, temperature and current alarms. It also includes trended information, such as oil temperature and ambient temperature comparisons, current, bus voltage, fan operation and tap changer position.

The temperature, bus voltage and transformer windows display red lines to depict thresholds engineering has determined for notification. When the measured values reach the threshold, a page, text or email is sent to the area maintenance engineer, equipment specialists or duty engineer that indicates which substation has an issue, proactively alerting them a problem requires further investigation.

Dashboard – Transformer Temperature

Figure 3 is a visualization available from the main transformer screen to provide more granular information regarding the transformer temperature and trending of the recent temperature activity. The red lines indicate the thresholds for the particular indicators.

3 Dashboard-Transformer Temperature
Dashboard-Transformer Temperature

Previously this was a manual process, and operations did not know the actual temperature of the transformer without sending someone on-site to inspect the temperature gauge on the transformer until a critical temperature point was reached. Then, a general major alarm was sent remotely to the system operator for further investigation.

Dashboard-DGA monitoring data

Information on the DGA dashboard provides a quick visualization of the transformer main tank and LTC analyzed gas and trended values. The gases also are organized by the type of failure mode typically causing the abnormal gassing level.

This information previously was obtained manually and could take two weeks from oil sampling to analysis and subject matter expert evaluation.

4 Dashboard-DGA Monitoring Data
Dashboard-DGA Monitoring Data

ComEd transformer subject matter experts have found this screen invaluable, especially in determining what the gas trending reveals regarding transformer health.

Dashboard-Circuit Breaker

Figure 5 is a dashboard on circuit breaker health and provides trend visualization on breaker metrics to ensure circuit breaker operational readiness, including the electrical operation times from the most recent breaker operation, the mechanical operation time also from the most recent operation, contact wear indication, the number of days since the most recent operation, and the operation counter.

5 Dashboard-Circuit Breaker
Dashboard-Circuit Breaker

All this information is extracted from the feeder relays and provides the key operational details required to reduce bus lockouts and ensure the breaker is performing optimally.


These data analytic and visualization tools are only the beginning. With the proposed deployment of 4.1 million smart meters on its system, ComEd has begun to consider the possibilities of increased grid awareness.

The potential is enormous, from validating our customer to transformer models, outage detection and customer voltage knowledge, to using real historical feeder and transformer data for loading characteristics and standards, to detecting overgrown vegetation and unaccounted for energy locations.

Technology will change faster than implementation, but ComEd is committed to deploying technology solutions that will provide cost-effective system improvements and enhanced customer reliability. Residential and business customers demand increased reliability and power quality to support our digital- and microprocessor-based world. Grid analytics is an environment of tools that may be used to:

1. Change the utility culture from reactive to proactive;

2. Allow utilities to change from time-based maintenance to condition-based maintenance cycles;

3. Drive overall efficiency and productivity;

4. Continue to improve the overall reliability of power system components; and

5. Increase customer satisfaction.

With the right mix of technologies and a strategic implementation and project management process, we can meet customers’ increasing expectations for affordable, efficient and reliable power through system insight that would not have been thought possible a few decades ago.

Breaking down organizational silos and gathering and analyzing the complex data and information, we will transform how electricity is delivered and used.

Terrence R. Donnelly is executive vice president and chief operating officer of ComEd and is responsible for performance in operations, safety, service reliability, customer satisfaction, financial management and smart grid development. He has a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Temple University.

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