Asset Management Will Evolve in Age of Smart Grid

Andrew Zetlan, Telvent Utilities Group

Utilities are focused on managing assets, and most utilities use software applications and business processes for this purpose. With the smart grid era approaching, new types of assets are being added, and the definition of critical assets is expanding. Meanwhile, the need to optimize asset utilization is driving changes in design and maintenance activities.

Electric utilities have software tools to manage their assets, ranging from asset and work management systems, often called enterprise asset management (EAM) systems, geographic information systems (GIS), planning systems, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, and fixed-asset accounting systems, often called plant accounting or continuing property records (CPR) systems.

Managing these disparate systems can be difficult because they often are implemented independently from one other to meet business needs. The systems are licensed from suppliers and may be based on technologies including programming languages, databases and human interface approaches.

The industry has taken steps to reduce the complexity caused by managing multiple asset databases, the largest of which is the establishment of the common information model (CIM). A well-accepted approach, CIM resolves many issues, but problems remain. And with smart grid programs underway, more solutions are needed.

The Advent of Smart Grid

Changes in the electrical system caused by environmental and economic factors have resulted in the move to what is commonly known as the smart grid. This evolution means utilities must manage distribution networks more effectively because:

  • Demand patterns are changing. Electricity consumers are adding electric vehicles and other devices to the grid, changing patterns of consumption. In addition, there consumers rely on electricity for more of their daily routine.
  • There is demand to understand the topology of the distribution network. Utilities understand it is important to manage the distribution network topology more precisely.
  • Generation is becoming more distributed. Distributed or green generation often connected to the distribution network is growing throughout the world as a result of environmental concerns.
  • Additional telemetry devices are being deployed on the distribution network. These telemetry devices and their associated telecommunications systems are assets and must be added to the asset inventory.
  • Additional smart switches are being added to the distribution network. This is resulting in additional asset attributes generally not seen before.

The smart grid causes significant growth in assets and asset information associated with the distribution network. Asset management systems used by electric utilities must adapt to this growth.

The Impact

Distribution utilities are reconsidering their approach to asset management in the smart grid era. It is no longer feasible to rely on disparate technology systems with many interfaces or to have multiple versions of the truth that require constant synchronization. Instead, utilities must consider getting to a single version of the truth for their asset-intensive software applications.

One version of the truth does not mean utilities must have a single, physical database. With all of the software applications involved, this is not a near-term possibility. Instead, utilities must reduce the number of physical databases and alter business processes to update this data as new information is received. This will enable the maintenance of asset data integrity across the enterprise.

For example, utilities should have processes to accept changes to the network (e.g., new assets, change in switch positions, etc.,) to be entered once and accepted by other systems. Data updates can be entered manually or be a product of telemetry from SCADA or other systems. Further, some systems can take advantage of using a single, shared database for multiple purposes.

Without these changes, utilities are likely to experience:

  • Higher cost. Multiple physical databases suggest multiple maintenance activities that would not be needed otherwise.
  • Operational issues. Likely, utilities with more physical, separate databases will experience more data errors. As experience suggests, these might lead to operational errors that can negatively impact reliability. 

What Utilities Must Consider

Utilities should consider the following to support their asset management efforts in the smart grid age:

  • Establishment of a single version of the truth. Utilities should consider the future and get to a greater level of data integrity related to distribution assets. Movement toward shared databases will be one approach, and will be provided by industry vendors who recognize this as a critical future need. Where multiple physical databases are required, strong business processes that enable updates of the asset information when updated information is received will suffice.
  • Elimination of special-purpose databases for smart grid assets. Utilities should consider using the same asset management software used for power equipment to manage additional assets that come with the smart grid era, including smart devices, communications equipment and equipment to manage distributed generation.
  • Establishment of spatial databases as the key to the management of smart grid asset information. Today’s database technology manages today’s asset information reasonably well, but smart grid needs suggest data will be more useful while managed in spatial context. Connectivity and network topology are far more easily represented and maintained in a spatial database context.
  • Establishment of a work flow management tool to support database updates. Utilities should set rules for database updates, then use work flow tools to ensure that the single change in an asset is replicated across other databases that contain the same asset. 

The Advantage of Spatial Databases in Asset Management

Utilities have struggled more than 20 years to understand how GIS fits within their information technology environments. Often seen as a splinter technology, GIS generally has been used solely to create maps for various uses within the organization. On occasion, GIS has been used to perform geographic analytics, including the siting of transmission and substation assets or the placement of assets in planned development areas.

Spatial databases, however, have the ability to do much more than create maps and perform simple geographic analyses. With software applications added to spatial databases, utilities can manage the topology of their electric grids based on information provided by people or telemetry. Further, once the topology is known, the spatial information can be used to compute a topology model of the grid, enabling study of potential outages, contingencies and the identification of other problems such as voltage issues, losses and alternative operating options.

Spatial databases are a necessity for advanced outage management because their use simplifies determining an outage’s likely cause and can support crew deployments and associated switching operations. While some software uses the spatial database to show outage locations to operations staff, the use of spatial databases to process outage information and to speed outage recovery is a strong function of spatial database technology and its associated applications software.

The Advantage of Work Flow Software in Asset Management

Utilities have yet to make extensive use of work flow software in their information technology environments. Instead, business processes are programmed into applications software more directly or continue to be more manually driven.

Work flow management software enables utilities to cross organizational boundaries by tying multiple software applications together to enable successful completion of a business process. Outage management, for example, requires cooperation between operations and customer service.

Work flow software has the added advantage of passing changes made on the distribution network to applications software that must know about those changes. For example, while a change in switch position might not change its fixed-asset accounting record, the switch operation might impact maintenance planning and might change the topology of the network, resulting in operational changes.

Work flow management software synchronizes data and applications in support of smart grid functions and adds additional benefits:

  • Lowers cost of interfacing legacy systems. With work flow software, applications no longer contain interface customizations, reducing expenses to own and operate systems. It might lengthen the life of legacy applications software.
  • Lowers the cost of application replacement. Work flow management software reduces the cost of software implementation, making it simpler for utilities to build the business case to move toward more modern software when it might be needed most.

The smart grid era is creating significant additions to utility infrastructure in smart meters and other devices and is changing how asset management will occur in the industry. Utilities are challenged to move toward an approach in which asset data and the processes to update that data must evolve to one version of the truth. Leveraging spatial and work flow technologies will help bring asset management to a new level of functionality for utilities and will help lead the industry into the smart grid era.

Andy Zetlan is the smart grid solutions executive at Telvent Utilities Group. He provides support to Telvent staff and customers regarding the business value and approaches to smart grid implementations. Reach him at

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