Integration of IT and OT— Enabling the Electric Grid of the Future

by Derek Porter, Ventyx, an ABB Company

Maintaining electric supply worldwide will require cumulative investment in transmission and distribution (T&D) infrastructure of more than $7 trillion between 2011 and 2035, according to World Energy Outlook 2011, the flagship publication of the International Energy Agency.

Even this significant investment, however, will not deliver all the electric grid’s potentially wide-ranging benefits without the increased use of real-time data. Real-time data is essential for achieving near-term business drivers—getting more from existing capital infrastructure and capitalizing on the expertise of an aging work force—and in setting a better technological foundation for more dynamic T&D systems.

Recent industry surveys show many utilities are preparing to acquire and develop new information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) infrastructure, business intelligence and analytics tools to optimally manage the broader, deeper use of real-time data associated with grid improvement. A clear example of this technological shift is in smart grid initiatives. Using IT solutions to draw better insights from real-time operational systems is common across smart grid initiatives, including improved fault location, isolation and restoration capabilities, supporting reliable, widespread use of distributed energy resources (DERs) and demand reduction through volt-var control.

This shift toward smarter hardware requires a step change improvement in software to take full advantage of potential benefits. To analyze the flood of real-time data associated with asset health and smart grid initiatives, for instance, utilities require new capabilities and processes. This is where the convergence of IT and OT systems is driving an energy industry transformation.

Leading Utilities Integrating IT, OT

The importance of IT-OT integration has been confirmed by most utilities surveyed in three recent research projects. One recent project included formal interviews of 68 utility decision-makers at 39 North American utilities and provided a good spectrum of utility plans and critical investment areas. The research found that leading utilities are underway with initiatives to improve IT-OT integration for optimization of network operations across critical business processes. And most utilities surveyed without current initiatives reported they are planning such initiatives soon.

The decision-makers interviewed in these studies varied in job titles and functions but shared at least one commonality: a keen interest in and awareness of the optimal use of real-time information in support of important T&D operations and maintenance (O&M) decisions. No particular enterprise software system or visualization model is at the center of these considerations. Rather, improving work flows was the focus for survey participants, and IT-OT integration is a key enabler of this focus.

Improving IT-OT Integration Higher Priority Than Smart Grid

Confirming the focus on IT-OT integration, most utility decision-makers in the study said they consider planning for smart grid initiatives a lower priority than improving their current level of IT-OT integration in the next two to three years. This was surprising at first, given the amount of smart grid press coverage. After further consideration, however, this makes sense when you consider that IT-OT integration is a necessary part of the infrastructure for building the future smart grid.

When questioned about asset health specifically, all participants were asked to rank priorities listed in Figure 1.

Utilities described their smart grid road maps as the lowest priority of the five, a reflection that asset health-related considerations are a vital precondition to any smart grid road map. If a utility is not aligning IT and OT and better managing its assets, it might become more difficult to deal with the increased complexity and stress that optimal utilization of assets will place on the grid and its related components.

EAM and the Need to Exploit IT-OT Synergies for Better O&M

Important synergies were revealed by the research involving the work order and cost tracking provided by enterprise asset management (EAM) software and related systems. These systems provide the ability to use data about the costs associated with O&M, as well as capital projects, to optimize decision-making in both areas. This fills a critical need. In much the same way that a crew cannot rebuild a ship while sailing on it, utility personnel cannot make long-term decisions without simultaneously addressing the daily realities of running their current business and engineering systems.

Utilities have typically made decisions based on calculations of return on investment or total cost of ownership. As the amount of data associated with O&M activities increases and the cost of gathering and analyzing that data decreases, IT-OT integration will dramatically improve the ability to design better business processes and to optimize solutions and lower O&M costs or in some cases maintain current high levels of reliability with the same budget—when the assets are aging faster than they can be replaced. A core area for these improvements involves improving equipment reliability and avoiding unnecessary maintenance by targeting key actions based on predictive strategies rather than traditional scheduled or time-based maintenance. Integrating IT (EAM software) with OT (sensors and control systems) is a critical enabler of these condition-based and predictive maintenance strategies.

Increasingly, aside from IT system improvements’ directly making workers more efficient by using better tools, these secondary work flow improvements will help optimize allocation of personnel based on considerations involving the best job functions to perform different phases of multistep projects. An outcome of this with direct impact on customer service is the improvement of work flows surrounding the updating of the OMS as-operated model and EAM as-built model, both of which require more rigorous work order closure processes to ensure quality control procedures are economically improved. The result will be more accurate models that will support faster restoration after outages and more reliable and predictable communications to customers regarding restoration.

Mobile work force management systems provide another opportunity for improving work flows. Operations technology generally centers on real-time monitoring and control systems, but by extension human resources also provide inputs to operational processes and can benefit in their work practices from knowledge of real-time and near real-time conditions. Optimization of crew responsiveness in the field by improved, integrated work-scheduling tools (e.g., deploying full job histories and other relevant information in real-time, location-based context during outages) is another important streamlining of O&M. Such capabilities will yield new near-term efficiencies and long-term insights when linked to business intelligence and analytics tools. In short, the advent of the operation technologies with the mobile work technologies will enable utilities to streamline their work flows, provide better data at the fingertips of field-workers and improve the customer response times and estimated restoration or solution times.

Optimized Work Flows, GIS Data Management Enable Increased T&D Reliability

To improve system reliability, increase customer satisfaction levels and ensure all activities and communications related to restoration are optimized, utilities seek to improve work flows related to the accuracy and speed of distribution system model updates. An important element of improving customer service involves initiatives to avoid introduction of errors and delays from geospatial information systems (GIS) in the updating and maintenance of as-built asset models and as-operated network models.

As Figure 2 demonstrates, more than 90 percent of survey participants felt that improving practices involving high-level work flows and business integration is very important or critical to their distribution organizations in these areas.

The research indicates that optimizing work flows associated with maintaining and improving the accuracy of real-time geospatial models of the distribution system were of major concern to survey participants. It also found that leading utilities are seeking to improve these work flows.

This is not unexpected; improving these work flows and the accuracy of as-built and as-operated models are key preconditions for many utilities to enable real-time distribution system network operations capabilities. For example, these improvements would enhance utilities’ ability to create self-healing distribution systems, which would optimize outage restoration by rerouting power flows to minimize the size of impacted areas. They offer the possibility to minimize the occurrences of distribution system outages during peak-load times while maximizing electricity sales and service levels. This would be accomplished by linking demand response (DR) to specific overloaded distribution transformers instead of applying it in the current, more blanketed fashion across larger segments of the T&D system.

Another related initiative driving deeper IT-OT integration is utilities’ need for improved model accuracy and real-time update capabilities to better address the intermittency of solar, wind and future storage resources, such as electric vehicles. These improved models will entail new monitoring capabilities for dispatchers at utilities, as well as lessening the need for traditional spinning reserve capacity to back up renewables’ intermittency using DR resources.

Each Utility’s Situation

A theme in the research findings was the range of paths forward expressed by utilities. Paradoxical though it may sound, it is typical for each utility to be unique.

Aside from the large differences in how each utility’s IT systems have evolved, there are great variations on the operations side. These variations are the natural result of how each utility expanded in its territory to serve a growing customer base while working within its own constraints in response to engineering, economic and regulatory considerations, among others. The result is a high level of diversity in the population profiles, O&M best practices and available data for each utility’s fleet of T&D assets.

This uniqueness impacts the IT and OT decisions made by each utility, as well as the need for vendors serving utilities to offer a great deal of modularity and flexibility in their solutions and accompanying services.


As important as future grid improvement or smart grid initiatives are, the research shows that a utility’s first priority must be improvement in IT-OT integration. This deeper integration will enable them to fulfill their smart grid visions while making significant improvements in the efficiency and reliability of network operations.

Cost reductions in sensors and accompanying technological improvements in real-time monitoring, communications and control systems, along with better capabilities for integration and data sharing of OT and IT systems, will enable utilities to get more value out of their enterprise software across their T&D systems as they address grid improvement.

The importance of balancing IT considerations against OT and work flow issues is evident from the research data. Survey participants confirmed that maximum value for IT solutions is achieved when the OT aspects of implementations are part of the overall design from the start. A good characterization of the issues involved was given by a utility that discussed how it selected its new work management systems:

We did a lot of work in selecting [our WMS vendor] but a lot of this has to do with defining your ideal processes ” and then making sure you are working with a vendor who will support you in implementing things so as to build out the processes you want. For utilities to get what is needed from any of the major vendors, the deciding factor will be more centered around whether or not you have defined the optimal business processes you want to have put in place and have the ability with the vendor you select to execute on it.

The conclusion regarding the use of real-time systems for electric distribution construction and O&M activities is that business process improvements and technologies to support operational excellence should drive IT and OT integration considerations.

Rather than any particular software system being at the center, the business case based on optimal work flows should be at the center. To justify that business case, the increased use of real-time data and the drive to continually lower O&M costs will place greater importance on systems that help monitor and track costs and analyze assets and O&M activities from an operational point of view.


Derek Porter is executive vice president of product management and strategy at Ventyx, an ABB Company.

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