By Thomas Zimmerman, Siemens Smart Grid Services
Historically in the energy industry, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have occupied separate realms, often for good reasons. But as utilities transition into a fully interconnected energy landscape, they can realize the full benefits of advanced smart grid technology only if they break up these silos to build more collaborative teams and interoperable systems.
The IT-OT convergence means integrating operational technologies such as energy distribution management, real-time grid operations at the transmission and substation level and more with IT systems that support metering, customer business processes, analytics, billing and field dispatches, etc.
Although overly simplistic, the divide can be characterized by two key systems: the customer information system, where hundreds of users generally manage millions of accounts with large-scale batch processing, vs. supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) in the control center, where dozens of users manage thousands of data points and hundreds of control points with updates every few seconds.
These characteristic systems reside in different departments or even organizations and have different costs of failure. In one case, company revenues and customer satisfaction are affected. In the other, there are consequences for physical safety, security of supply and potentially broader economic impacts. Because of these characteristic differences, utilities have evolved organizationally with separate domains with distinct processes, cultures and technical systems. A few years ago, however, this started to change.
IT-OT Integration Drivers
The emergence of technologies and business processes have driven the integration of operational technologies with IT systems. First, more smart devices including smart meters are being introduced into the market. These devices generate a massive amount of data and drive requirements regarding data acquisition and management, as well as field maintenance and work activities that span IT-OT. This includes dealing with higher volumes of data and handling major increases in device configuration and communications management. Smart meters are becoming a new class of intelligent electronic devices or remote terminal units with telemetry, remote controls, event logging and reporting. They often are capable of sophisticated recording like voltage and current and not limited to revenue metering. Extending the sensing and control to the last mile of the grid, these technologies also require a new scale of data, device and configuration management. Initially, they drive integrated IT systems such as meter data management (MDM) and work management systems, but increasingly they also support grid operations through integration with SCADA and advanced distribution management systems.
Another factor driving the need for integration is growing consumer engagement in grid operations. What started with reactive measures such as dynamic pricing, e.g., time of use, to influence load distribution has extended to include customer-owned renewable generation, new loads such as electric vehicles, and new forms of distributed generation and storage. All those will require even more active engagement between the more customer-oriented systems and grid control systems. Dispatchable virtual power plants’ aggregating small and distributed generation or demand response management systems are just examples of business applications that increase the need to further integrate the control center and customers.
Also the organizational demand for relevant information and the ability to support business decisions is growing exponentially. Planners and forecasters seek to optimize operations based on data and information from meters and intelligent grid sensors. Customers strive for energy efficiency and subsequent lower bills through energy usage transparency and want immediate information about outages and reliable restoration times. Management requests up-to-date key performance indicators reporting and integrated information dashboards across the enterprise. To address these information needs, integrated and combined data from multiple systems across both domains must be taken into account.
With these new requirements, utility systems can no longer be seen and treated as silos but need to work in concert in an interconnected environment that enables and supports process automation, optimization, as well as better and faster decision-making based on business intelligence.
Blending the Silos
Achieving IT-OT integration requires blending of teams, processes, budgets and cultures, which often challenge existing fiefdoms. With each team dedicated to its core mission, other teams and missions initially might look like distractions. But there are proven paths to achieve greater IT-OT integration and become more data-driven with actionable information across the utility.
Utilities need to establish enterprise integration policies that accommodate OT and IT solutions with processes for harmonizing data modeling and semantics. Within such an integrated environment, utilities can better identify high-impact use cases, derive quick wins and initiate further optimization based on hard facts. These steps might suggest a re-examination of the organization chart and its alignment with the new operational roles these systems engender.
Cybersecurity should be a key consideration in these integrations as the silos often served as a security firewall. Control center operators could be concerned that a customer Web portal might provide a way for hackers to tunnel through to SCADA systems and jeopardize grid stability. Others might fear any breach that exposes personally identifiable information. But security should not foil integration. Utilities should employ defense in depth security policies and restrict access to the most sensitive systems while promoting secure within-the-enterprise access to as many systems as possible.
Smart metering and smart grid initiatives started much of this dialogue. But these project teams are often transient as projects wind up. It is important to establish persistent organizations that maintain the cross-functional connections and prevent teams from snapping back into silos. People are always key to any business model change, and they will ensure the transition is successful and will keep it working. Partnering with vendors who have experience and a proven commitment to bridging the IT-OT domains can help with the transition and skills development.
There is great potential in bridging the gap between previously isolated IT applications and real-time grid control using data from across the enterprise in an effective and actionable way. Most IT and OT software applications are not independent and need to be considered within a utility technology landscape. Open platforms can help reduce integration and maintenance costs substantially while promoting flexibility so business applications can be developed and integrated quickly into the landscape.
This holds true for MDM and demand response, virtual power plants and load management, distribution management systems, as well as outage systems, analytics and decision support.
By moving to such a fully interconnected energy system, utilities will be able to exploit the full potential of the deployed technology, optimize their operations and meet ROI expectations.
Thomas Zimmerman is the CEO of the Services Business Unit of the Siemens smart grid division. He is an expert in the IT space, driving Siemens’ efforts to build its smart grid solution business and leveraging its IT partnering ecosystem.