by Paul J Yarka
Vice President, Convergent Group
Deregulation and growing competition are driving utilities to enhance the business of energy delivery as a means to improve customer satisfaction and confidence, as well as shareholder value. There is also increased scrutiny of all technology investments. Senior management is paying closer attention to IT (information technology) system-related business cases, including assessments of net present value, improved rates of IT system return and accelerated IT system deployment times.
Configurable best-in-class solutions are beginning to drive productivity improvements associated with optimized work processes. The enterprise resource planning (ERP) projects of the 1990s are now production systems that are helping utilities with maintenance of financial and human resources, materials management and asset management. The industry is also moving to upgrade decade-old billing and customer information management systems by improving their integration with other systems (including those of energy delivery), analyzing the opportunity to modularize legacy systems, or modernizing billing and customer information management strategies and solutions.
Utility technology approaches
In the new millennium, many more utilities are focused on the re-engineering of business processes to support operational, engineering and maintenance activities across existing or merged organizational boundaries. Many organizations insist that process reengineering should precede the implementation or consolidation of energy delivery systems across offices and working groups. This approach insures that optimized work processes are defined as a requirements baseline for new energy delivery IT systems.
Also, major technology advances are affecting the time required to complete energy delivery systems delivery and deployment. Key technology advances include software component engineering (based on the component object model [COM], the common object request broker architecture [CORBA] and enterprise Java beans), multitier client/server architectures and streamlined software engineering methodologies.
For example, component reengineering of stand-alone distribution planning and system analysis platforms is enabling the broader use and integration of network analysis solvers in applications ranging from customer service to trouble handling and maintenance management.
Cross-functional applications, such as integrated GIS- and work management system- based graphical work design, optimize the re-engineered energy delivery work design process and associated data creation and maintenance. Multiple technology and solutions providers increasingly offer more cross-functional, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications like graphical work design.
GIS solution providers now offer business-appropriate conceptual object models and instantiated data models that precisely define a best-in-class electric, gas or water utility facilities model capable of driving a 90 percent (or better) solution to a utility’s asset registry strategy. In this post-Y2K era, investments in energy delivery IT systems are focused on COTS products and solutions that provide visual and computer-aided software engineering driven configuration environments.
More functional and more easily configurable systems significantly lessen the need for utilities to maintain staffs of software developers. Rather, utility IT organizations seek more team members who understand software methodologies, project management, utility business processes, system architecture, system integration and e-business transformation.
The growing use of the configuration approach further suggests that energy delivery-related products are moving toward business-process enabling solutions. The typical industry goal is to address 80 percent or more of an organization’s requirements via a COTS product and 20 percent or less of a utility’s requirements via the configuration of the COTS product. In addition, recent technology advances readily provide enhanced software support for more flexible use and broader functional capabilities.
Energy delivery resource planning (EDRP) processes and systems are today much better defined. EDRP and back-office ERP systems integration define the key operations, engineering, business processes and IT systems required to support a transmission- and distribution-focused energy delivery organization. Vendors of today’s energy delivery technologies recognize the need to refocus their product capabilities toward providing improved support for process-driven integration. Operations and maintenance systems are intelligently linked with more traditional back-office systems.
Most integrated business processes at this juncture are enabled by point-to-point, tightly coupled integrations. These interfaces vary widely based on products, related technology and architecture. Tightly coupled interfaces range from data to application levels of integration. An example is the integration of a GIS and an outage management system (OMS). Typically, OMS technology requires some form of network model, land base model, address information and customer-to-transformer relationship from GIS. Providing these models and information to OMS technology today typically requires a GIS-OMS data interface that can vary from a translator/file conversion interface to a database interface.
The OMS requires a model-appropriate, sometimes format-specific and possibly generalized network and land base model. The network object model may likely include real world objects that support this integration. These are typically enabled by stored procedures, application programming interfaces that directly access a geospatial database or direct calls to the business logic of a geospatial system, depending on customer and peer product requirements. In addition, utilities are seeking SCADA integration in combination with GIS-OMS/DMS (distribution management system) integration to provide utility dispatchers with the optimum integrated view of a utility’s as-operated network state.
Future designs and strategies
Looking to the future digital enterprise, the transmission and distribution-focused energy delivery IT systems architecture will evolve to include embedded geospatial infrastructure platforms that support the creation, management and maintenance of a geospatially-oriented facility asset registry.
The energy delivery integration framework will more broadly leverage as-built and as-operated energy network object models, resource object models and work object models. In addition, the integrated utility IT environment will likely incorporate a message-oriented, enterprise application integration (EAI) and B2C/B2B integration platform with repeatable or product-level adapters or interfaces and embedded or integrated business process/ workflow modeling technology. These will enable IT support for adaptable and flexible business process models, process automation, monitoring and analysis.
With the primary goals of simplifying and reducing interface-related construction and maintenance costs, leading EAI and business-to-customer (B2C) and business-to- business (B2B) integration platform vendors will provide real-time messaging backbones, message transformation capabilities, tools for energy delivery business process automation, Internet-based access to internal and externalized processes and pre-built adapters for energy delivery application integration. Overall, the focus of this evolving software technology industry will continue to shift from ERP-focused EAI to e-business-enabling B2B and B2C integration.
Another focus of future energy delivery
IT designs will incorporate communications-focused aspects of customer relationship management (CRM) technologies. Although of greater interest to energy service companies, select aspects of CRM technology are of increasing interest to distribution organizations as a series of best practices, tools and technologies that are designed to support more and better quality customer-related interactions.
Although not directly a part of energy delivery, integrated CRM capabilities will focus on enhanced customer service, support and retention applications leveraging integrated blended media platforms that connect to integrated EDRP applications. Again, the CRM emphasis in distribution organizations is on opening more convenient and appropriate customer communication channels to operations and maintenance processes.
Widespread mobile application development and enabling platforms along with substantially evolved mobile hardware will enable more optimal business process support and application integration via EAI platforms. An example of an enhanced mobile application is one that supports a virtual customer service representative workforce during major network outages. The vision is to leverage a virtual customer service workforce including utility and contract employees to improve territory-wide customer call handling.
Energy delivery B2C/B2B processes can be supported via the Internet as EDRP, ERP and automated communication channels become integrated as a complete IT framework across the enterprise. The evolution of contemporary energy delivery technology architectures to Internet-ready architectures that are enabled by COM, CORBA and other distributed object framework specifications is of paramount importance to achieve this level of integration.
Integration of these environments between businesses across the Internet or between a business and a Web-enabled customer will drive transmission and distribution e-business. Potential energy delivery e-business interactions include B2B energy supply management via energy trading exchanges, B2B utility material requisition and purchasing via procurement exchanges, online account and service request management and online access to utility-specific energy reliability and service performance information.