10 Hurdles to Smart Grid.

Author: Jeffrey S. Katz, IBM



If the electrical grid is to become smart, utilities will require education. As in most of our individual experiences with the educational process, there are a few hurdles to obtaining an education, not all of them as part of track and field. IBM’s experience with the smart grid, known as its intelligent utility (IU) network, has shown several issues that occur more than once. Every utility is different, due to size, origin, heritage, and also due to state or country regulations. The direct technology solutions are not discussed here in depth as that would limit this article to one or two topics, but the engineering situations that can be encountered are. This article discusses the technology issues that one may come across in a smart grid implementation without the deep solution dive.

There was a Robin Williams’ comedy album awhile ago with the intriguing title, “Reality” What a Concept.” So, following are 10 pieces of reality to assist you in moving forward with your smart grid concepts. In the spirit of helping utilities achieve an “A” in the spring semester that is just starting, here are 10 areas to study for the smart grid final.

1) Information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) symbiosis. Smart enabled by technology frequently means automation, automation frequently involves computing, and computing frequently involves applications of IT concepts. Suddenly, IT then becomes applicable to the OT part of the utility. What will we do now?

Conversely, IT applied to computing—a part of automation, which is part of smart—cascades into an appreciation for IT of the operation of nonstop electric power delivery. Nonstop implies no rebooting during peak power demand, security as a given and design for reliability and scaleability. All of these are known OT goals that IT will learn to appreciate more as the smart grid progresses. However, at some point in the discourse, a mental hurdle is jumped and a light goes on. The two are no longer separate functions when applied to the smart grid. In other words, to use a term commonly heard while my 7-year-old watches the “Animal Planet” cable TV channel, smart grid is a symbiotic relationship. Each party needs the other; each provides functions, insight and experience that help the other. Together the two live better, and, after all, better living is what the smart grid is all about.

2) A secure environment. It is not possible to learn and process information in an insecure environment. This is true of children in school, and it is true of making the grid smart. Building the smart grid requires consideration of security for the new sensing, communication and data streams that feed it. Security here means all of the attributes–denial of service prevention, no data loss, no data interception or falsification, no equipment intrusions or takeover, no clever virus propagation into systems due to unsuspecting software. If hackers are clever enough to inject viruses into data files such as pictures, then can disruptive contexts of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) data be ignored? Can one resist a hack to trigger the neighbor’s remote disconnect in the new smart meter? In the United States, there are North Amercian Electric Reliabiltiiy Corp. (NERC) CIP mandates that may get even more stringent in the future. There is an interesting debate on whether control of 300 MW of demand response is covered by the same NERC CIP topics on control of direct generation. Several customers are working with IBM on the concept of virtual generation–effectively dispatchable load control. This makes the federal security issue not just the domain of generation or major transmission lines. Security can often be a poster child for the chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link paradigm. Bottom line: Security must be in phase one of a pilot project, as its design impacts can affect all future phases and costs. By the time you read this, IBM expects to be doing a pilot project around trusted virtual domains of security, a technology to help in a multivendor, all-is-not-known security environment. This may be one approach to trusting the security chain when some links are proprietary and thus not visible.

3) The ability to communicate. A complex system needs to be able to sense its environment and control the parts of the environment that affect its well being. SCADA systems will be supplemented in utilities by distributed intelligence, reducing reaction times and impacting communication design. There are inherent connections between security and communication, as the remote communication can be the weak point in the security chain. The grid covers such a wide geographical expanse that a thorough communications evaluation is an early step in the smart grid blueprinting process. While utilities tend to like to own their own infrastructure, this may not always be possible on today’s deregulated playing field. Quality of service, backup methods for communication, ensuring the whole system can work without power, philosophies of in-band control, all become factors in effective smart grid communication. Whether the topic is worldwide interoperability for microwave access (WiMax), some type of multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) or powerline carrier (PLC), the communication network design, its radio frequency (RF) immunity, or the use of substations as base stations, all communication requires thorough consideration.

4) Grow in phases. The smart grid contributes to many aspects of the future utility’s operation. However, everything cannot be improved at once, so managed growth–according to a smart grid blueprint drawn upon the utility’s view of its future–is a sign of an evolved enterprise. The concept of a road map also helps manage risk. This is often a large gap to jump, as many utility projects are done within one organization’s purview and have defined completion points. A new series of transmission towers is put in place, starting from planning through site acquisition, rights of way, civil engineering, construction, lineman work, equipment additions, enterprise management system (EMS) reconfiguration, etc. When the line is energized, it moves to operations and maintenance and the project is considered complete. With the smart grid, a first phase might be communications and AMI, a second phase might be completion of fiber to substations and IED interconnects, a third phase might be outage optimization using the new data and existing distribution management system (DMS) and outage management system (OMS) information. Each step is a complete project in itself, but there is an overall vision to a system-wide improvement–each phase building on the previous, but flexible enough to take phase one lessons learned into phase two. Thus, a good vision and road map produced up front and publicized are a way to show stakeholders that you know where you are going.

5) Self-awareness. Smart grids are built by smart utilities, which have more holistic project development and examine the impact of each suggested project on the whole smart grid. A future-looking utility is aware of what is going on within its own company and what needs to go on in its smart grid vision and learns from less than successful efforts so the next time is better.

There are likely projects going on already in the utility that are part of the smart grid, or oriented that way to avoid rework. There is planning data and operational experience within the company. The hurdle here is to be aware of what the enterprise already knows–in terms of projects underway, projects in the next few years’ budgets, things certain groups know have to be fixed but go unheard, major disconnects between existing systems that can save a lot of time if improved upon. Smart grid is not just about new data sources; it is about improving what is already going on inside the utility. As demonstrated by the types of books in the front displays of most airport book stores, improving what you already have is a major lesson to be learned. Or, as some Zen master probably said, know where you are before you start going somewhere else.

6) An integrated system. Future-looking utilities look at projects and smart grid tasks as part of a whole–understanding that all new information can impact other projects. They provide a common way for information to flow between projects, such as implementing a service-oriented architecture (SOA) before the smart grid data begins to flow. Creating a list of services needed by various applications is a start toward implementation; wrapper technologies help preserve and not discard existing applications. Sometimes new, small applications can participate in SOA and import and export the data needed from legacy software. Examining the cost of exchanging new data with existing applications should not be so high as to eliminate participation by certain departments. If the reader has an MBA instead of an electrical engineering degree, then think of it this way: Wouldn’t you want to make an investment now so there is more return from the smart grid project in the future? The grid is built for generations, and the benefits need to be evident over a long time. Thus, integrating the data flow within the company can save much engineering time and provide insights instead of rework, as well as improving consistency and human intervention. So, consider the internal hurdle of future proofing–ensuring that great grid observability propagates throughout, and that the application of standards is a mantra, not a missed opportunity.

7) A higher purpose. Simply said, the purpose of an electric power utility is to keep the lights on. The purpose of a smart grid is to support this goal, and pilots, rollouts, technology introduction and new operations are designed to minimize any impact on the primary purpose. While some (hopefully many) in the utility are in favor of your smart grid project, there will be pessimists (what Dilbert calls realists) who see the project as potentially harmful to the utility’s prime mission. Think of this as a variation of the original “Star Trek” prime directive: Do no harm. There has to be a close cooperation between IT and OT to assess this type of impact. Pilot projects need to be done realistically and solving the problems of the pilot project needs to be in the pilot’s scope and budget. Things don’t get better in the rollout if they are suspicious, intermittent or unreliable in the pilot phase. Smart grid’s goal is to bring easier and better operation to the utility, not just more computer systems and great looking executive presentations that make the maintenance people want to retire early. Keeping the lights on is ensuring that reliability and safety are part of each project phase. This is what makes T&D people sometimes concerned about automation: They know the insulators and transformers are reliable; therefore, a system composed of reliable components has a good chance of being reliable, as well as interoperable (e.g. the wire size is the right gauge for the transformer output). The smart grid team in the utility needs to show that its smarter components can also assemble a reliable system that will scale, and that the utility’s purpose will still be served better by the smart grid project.

8.) Think analytically. Utilities with their future smart grid will have more data and, with aging workforce issues, perhaps fewer people. Thus automated analysis of new smart grid data is critical and proper combination of classic equations and automated data discovery can propel a smart grid utility into better understanding the wide view of the whole operation. We all know there are respected engineers with their own spreadsheets and models of the utility operation. These people need to be tracked down and volunteered to be on the smart grid team. For they are already trying to be smart about the grid, they just don’t have the real-time information flow. Many of these pet projects can be turned from obstacles into assets of the smart grid project. It may often be that the important analytics component of the smart grid has a running start within your utility. And, the devisers of these informal tools need to be welcomed to the project and their existing work explained to the smart grid team. For it is these engineers who will still use their tools to keep things going and understand their part of the grid; so, the best path forward is to support them and ensure the project provides the information they need to get the best analytics and optimization of the system. The better understanding of the grid operation is where the finance people will eventually see the paybacks as line crews, operations, planning, and customer information systems become more energized. Linkages to common engineering software such as Mat Lab and common power system engineering tools such as power system simulator (PSS) and NEplan are seen as part of a good analytics framework.

9) Know what you know. Another common hurdle is assuming that new data generated by the smart grid provides new insights now, and then it has no more use. Especially with concerns about aging workforce reducing internal insight, data saved and examined off-line to see greater, more time-expansive patterns of operational behavior becomes more important. Retirees are not walking off with transformers, computers, or data. They are leaving often with heads filled with correlations, such as how the southeast substation behaves when the humidity is high, or which underground cable vaults are trouble when it rains 3 inches per hour. The sometimes overlooked concept is planning now in your smart grid project for some type of after-the-fact data correlation. Linking years of information in a computerized maintenance mangement system (CMMS) to events happening now is important. It is not just a knowledge management investment to try to even come close to the wisdom of experience. It is another benefit–MBAs: read return-on-investment (ROI)–of the smart grid. The technologies and tools for business intelligence are available now, and not just limited to looking for expense account abuse. Many of these tools such as Cognos Now, or specialized event processing tools such as AptSoft, can find gold in those data nuggets. Providing free range to people who want to use these tools to check out suspicions and hunches is almost as important as the purpose built analytics to provide you with what you think you need to know. These will help you find things you know but didn’t know that you knew. This will help in observing nonobvious and less correlated interactions between disparate systems and equipment.

10) An emotional side. Perhaps the softest hurdle, but the hardest lesson, is that a successful smart grid implementation often becomes that way by the utility managing its strategy and change with its employees. Smart grid introduces new technologies; however, it is essential to do so in an appropriate way, by valuing the leadership and experience of current experts on the way to empowering new generations of employees. They will have to comprehend and support the complex minute-by-minute operation of the grid, and improving its customer reliability by bringing advances to the field force, which is often the larger part of a utility’s employee population. Companies often have informal channels of knowledge, based on group think about who really knows what, and it can parallel and bypass the organization chart. The people looked upon as experts need to still be your experts. So, involving them early, having them be the trainer of trainers, ready to show others about the new smart grid system and keep their established expert roles, can be vital to jumping this last fence on the way to smart grid victory.

An IU network is a major part of the future electric power industry. Only 10 hurdles are listed here, but you should not think of them as a David Letterman style “Top 10 Things That Can Go Wrong With Your Smart Grid Project.” Rather than a dissuader, think of the above in the Boy Scout motto sense of “Be prepared.” These 10 hurdles may not be present or evident at your utility, but it is worth a look. Or, as Dogbert might say, “These are only the first 10.” I’m interested to hear other views via my e-mail address below. I suggest that you consider each one and determine if you should act on any.

Some coaching may be required. For example, IBM worked with the American Productivity and Quality Center to produce the smart grid maturity model. This includes an assessment showing where your company is and where it may want to go in the smart grid circuit. Working with the Grid Wise Alliance, attending some of its or the Grid Wise Architecture Council’s events and looking at the EPRI IntelliGrid Web site, can be part of a good training program for the 21st century electrical system.

Jeffrey S. Katz is the chief technology officer in the energy and utilities industry at IBM. Previously he was with ALSTOM Power Plant Labs and before that at ABB Corporate Research. He can be reached at jskatz@us.ibm.com.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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