Smart Grid Demands Increased Field Tech Investments

by Chris Stern, Trimble

The utility industry is in the midst of its most significant transformation in more than six decades.

Decreasing power demand following weakness in the commercial and industrial segments coupled with priorities such as decreasing fossil fuel demand, protecting against national security threats, reducing carbon emissions and lowering overall operating costs are all drivers for implementing a more reliable, efficient electric infrastructure.

As millions of wirelessly connected smart meters and sensors are deployed around the world and utilities and consumers rely more heavily on a smart grid infrastructure, electric utilities are faced with major technology investments and business process changes.

Although these changes will make it easier for utilities to meet customers’ needs with fewer resources, many utilities remain unsure how to proceed.

One of the most significant components of smart grid technology is its role in relation to utility field-workers. An entire work force accustomed to manual processes and taking handwritten notes must learn how to interact with intelligent equipment such as smart meters, Internet-enabled sensors and rugged, mobile computers.

To help address questions around the technology solutions available for managing a mobile work force in the smart grid era, IDC analysts teamed with Trimble to develop the “Field Productivity Solutions for Smart Grid” report, which shows that demand for smart grid technology will grow substantially in coming years and will introduce opportunities and challenges for mobile workers.

IDC Energy Insights forecasts that by 2013, more than 60 million smart meters will be deployed in the U.S. and that North American utility spending on software, hardware and services will surpass $17 billion annually by 2013.

Smart Grid and Field-workers

The ability to share accurate, up-to-date information across an entire utility organization and with consumers lies at the smart grid’s heart.

As a result of increased technology investments in the field, utilities are transitioning from highly leveraged, manual processes toward increased automation and system intelligence via strategic hardware, software and communications network investments.

But the transition requires utilities to increase technology investments in the field dramatically and shift from manual business processes that have been in place decades.

The introduction of these new smart grid field information and communications technologies enable utility workers to easily share, update and act upon real-time information from the field and office.

The resulting increase in field technology, however, creates additional implications and opportunities for utility organizations.

The industry’s transition to a highly automated smart grid infrastructure requires utilities to introduce their field-work forces properly to the new skills and expertise required to operate and manage these increasingly complex systems. Utilities are tasked with transforming their field crews into technology-savvy knowledge workers for utilities to operate more efficiently.

Utilities able to strike a balance most effectively between smart grid technology and a highly qualified work force will have a significant advantage in coming years.

For example, when a major power outage occurs at a utility with a smart grid infrastructure and technology-enabled work force, the utility is automatically notified which customers are affected via downed smart meters.

The nearest field crew is automatically dispatched to the exact location required to restore power, and all of the information required to perform the work is delivered electronically to field-workers. The result is a more rapid power restoration, improved utility performance and reduced cost.

Many utilities overlook the importance of field-workers’ acceptance and adoption of field productivity solutions in the overall success of a smart grid strategy.

A utility’s choice of field operations tools and systems can make the difference between a highly efficient, resilient work force and a work force that struggles to make optimal decisions or serve customers in a timely manner.

Although field technologies are empowering to mobile workers, linemen and other supporting workers are seeing the nature of their jobs change.

They must know about physical equipment and operations and the bits and bytes that make transmission and distribution systems smart.

Field Technology Solutions

Field productivity solutions for smart grid include various enabling hardware, software and communications technologies.

The following list provides some key capabilities that work together to effectively allow for the seamless exchange of precise information between the field and office:

  • Mobile resource management,
  • Geographic information system (GIS) mapping,
  • Asset and work management,
  • GPS,
  • Automated vehicle locating,
  • Communications technologies, and
  • Field computers.

A combination of field computers, precision mapping and GPS locating, wireless communications and field application software are the foundation of a smart grid field productivity solution.

This generally includes rugged mobile computing devices such as handheld computers or tablets and laptops that often are mounted inside lineman trucks, as well as secure wireless communications to transmit sensitive information between the office and field and the field device and smart grid equipment.

Integrated barcode scanning, radio-frequency identification tools and digital cameras also are important components of many field systems, as is back-office device management and support for quick, easy equipment troubleshooting.

The other hallmarks of an advanced field productivity solution include GIS and asset management technology such as high-accuracy GPS receivers that track locations and provide subfoot and decimeter level location information, along with mobile GIS software to provide detailed maps of utility infrastructure to utility field-workers.

Additional software applications for mobile work force management, outage management, network analysis and design, and asset management layer into these systems to provide complete automation of utility work flows and field operations, providing a complete foundation for an effective smart grid field solution.

Business Drivers

Field technologies are just one part of a utility’s smart grid strategy, but often they are among the first to be deployed because of the significant benefits available through more effectively managing remote workers and assets. Some of the specific business drivers behind field productivity solution adoption include:

  • Massive information deployment. Utilities face making business process changes that will improve the way information is shared throughout their entire organization and with customers. Smart grid field technologies provide the foundation for information flow among the office, field and consumers, enabling utilities to improve operations dramatically while empowering consumers with the information they need to become more energy-efficient. Field technologies replace manual, paper-based data collection processes and provide more accurate information to utility field crews, enabling better decision-making and improving worker safety.
  • Increasing need for linemen to interact with highly sensitive, technology-enabled equipment. As electric transmission and distribution systems become more complex through the addition of smart grid sensors and technologies, linemen will be called to complete more difficult tasks such as device activation, measurement and calibration in the field. Workers must be trained and equipped to take on greater responsibilities, complete detailed technical analysis and make physical and technical system changes in the field, which drives the need for providing them with highly accurate information and more sophisticated tools.
  • Increasing demand on communications infrastructure. The identification and management of more wireless smart grid devices and sensors require robust field solutions capable of harmonizing the power equipment and their respective technology devices to competently troubleshoot or make changes in the field. This massive increase in smart device communications, such as continuous smart meter transmissions, places significant demand on communications bandwidth and data security in the field.

The question isn’t if, but when and how to implement smart grid field productivity solutions to transform utility mobile workers and field operations. The most successful utilities will seek a complete solution that is easy to implement and easy for workers to learn and use. The future utility work force will be technologically savvy and able to use the tools at their fingertips to work smarter, faster and more effectively to support customers.


Chris Stern is director of strategy and business development for the Trimble Utilities Field Solutions Group, which provides comprehensive technology solutions that enable utilities to operate more efficiently and effectively. Reach him at


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