By Peter Johnson, Alcatel-Lucent
In my local community, our school is turning green. In the corner of the school yard there is a wind turbine whirring away at high speed and there are solar panels arrayed across the roof. The advantage is not just energy independence, but, in the evenings and weekends, the school is able to sell the surplus electricity back to the grid. But, when I turn the corner, I am struck by a sense of disbelief when I see just how little control the local electricity company has over this operation: a manually operated switch at the top of a pole.
For me, this illustrates the two extremes of the problems facing distribution utilities today. Politicians and regulators are encouraging the rapid move to renewable energy, in some cases providing financial incentives for the installation of small-scale production, as in our local school. On the other hand, many distribution networks are not equipped to cope with this activity. As some countries have found to their cost detriment, encouraging large-volume adoption of small-scale production creates power quality problems (for example, voltage flicker) in the local ends of distribution networks—the one place where the utility probably has least visibility and control.
Now add to this the other challenges facing utilities—the surge in seasonal demand, the demand for greater consumer information and participation, the pressure from stakeholders on efficiency and the longer-term prospect of a mass rollout of electric vehicles—and it’s no wonder things are changing in the utility industry.
Information—the Key Enabler
Smart grids represent the recognition by the industry that traditional reinforcement of energy networks is not an efficient and cost-effective method of solving the problems listed.
But smart grid means too many things. For our purposes, I’d like to talk about smart grids as the use of real-time network derived information for managing the energy network.
As in any business, the utility can only make good decisions if it has good information. This may be information about the way energy is flowing in its network, or about the power quality being delivered, or information on the condition of assets or flagging incidents. With increasing intermittent renewable energy in networks and the prospect of electric vehicle charging becoming a way of life, however, these decisions will have to be taken in real time. Because the events they are managing will move faster than a human can react, these decisions will increasingly become automated. So a good starting point for this is examining the way in which we can collect data today and turn it into information.
Again, the industry recognizes that the smart meter is a good starting point. It represents a sensor at the point of delivery, able to measure not just power consumed, but power produced, power quality and outages. This implies the potential for a huge volume of data being derived from the energy network.
Data is all very well, but to be useful it must be transformed into information, and this is where the meter data manager can sit at the hub of energy management.
The Path Toward an Information-driven Utility
The meter data manager sits as the central hub for information exchange. Facing the network, it collects and collates data. Today, this data comes from smart meters, but it is easy to envisage a solution that adds the data from other sensors in the distribution network. It also sends information: pricing signals for demand side management, demand response and remote connect and disconnect instructions. In addition, it will be responsible for device firmware upgrades, not just smart meters, but potentially any smart device in the network.
Facing the other direction, the data manager interfaces to a variety of utility functions: operational systems (such as distribution management systems, outage management systems and so on), retail systems (whether owned by the utility or third-party resellers) including Web portals to allow consumers to interactively manage their energy usage, asset management and planning systems. Some of these systems will be new; some will already exist.
Thus the meter data manager can become the data manipulation hub for the smart utility, reading data from the network and feeding information to network operations and business management. This brings me to the key functions of this meter data manager:
Most people consider the meter data manager’s function as limited to the first two aspects: device management and data collation. These are the fundamental functions, but they should not represent the whole capability because data without a context is useless. The system best placed to provide that context is the meter data manager.
The Role of the Meter Data Manager
By correlating different data threads, the data manager can develop the context that surrounds the data. For example, by collating the power quality data from smart meters, the data manager can determine there is a power quality issue (for example, a voltage sag problem) on a particular feeder; it may even be able to pinpoint the geographic source or sources of the problem. This can then be fed as an alarm to the appropriate management system. The same data, interpreted a different way, might also highlight an overstressed section of infrastructure, vital information to the asset management function within the utility.
This is the transformation of data into information and is also the start of transforming the business to an information-driven utility.
Also implied is the need to interact with a variety of energy systems in the operations center and in the business. These might exist already and will probably have their own data models and data exchange protocols. The data manager must be able to mediate the data to a form the systems recognize. The objective is to minimize change in the client servers and concentrate that change in the flexibility point that is the data manager.
Finally the data manager can interact with the consumer systems. A true information-driven utility will encourage customer interaction, providing the mechanisms for the customer to make energy choices to balance comfort vs. economy and providing information that allows intelligent decisions on energy usage and behavior. Some of this will be handled via network signals sent to the consumer’s premises, but a large measure will also be through Web-based portals.
Thus, the data manager becomes the key enabler to distribution and energy management efficiency through its ability to collate and correlate data from the network and mediate it to a variety of applications.
Getting the Benefit
This concept of the data manager acting as a real-time data exchange allows utilities to maximize the use of the variety of data sources available. This provides a number of benefits:
- Proactive incident management,
- Proactive power quality management,
- Asset utilization efficiency improvement,
- Green energy sources integration into any part of the network, and
- Consumer engagement in the energy efficiency value chain.
Scalability is a virtue of the data management function. You can start small with smart meters and add meters and sensors as projects are brought on stream. You can add new energy management functions over time. Scalability also puts the utility in a good position to manage the impact of electric vehicles as they are deployed.
Most engineers acknowledge that smart metering is the starting point for smart grids. This is feasible only if data is treated as a valuable resource and if the correlation of data from multiple sources allows it to be turned into usable information. The center of this transformation is the meter data manager acting as the aggregation center for data, the correlation point that transforms data to information and the mediation hub that interfaces to multiple operational and business applications.
This is the transformation that is facing utilities. I will know it has succeeded when I see our local school connected directly to a smart grid data network.
Peter Johnson is vice president of energy markets for Alcatel-Lucent.
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