The evolving relationship between information technology and operations technology in utilities is a hot topic in current smart grid discussions. The worlds of IT and OT teams have historically been distinct within utilities. IT has been primarily focused on business process and customer management systems, while operational systems for managing and monitoring power networks have been the domain of operational teams, with only limited input from the IT department. That situation is changing for a number of reasons.
The role of IT in the rollout of smart meters, including the deployment of MDM and new customer management and billing applications, has enhanced its standing within the business. It’s also becoming evident that realizing the benefits of smart meter deployments – such as flexible pricing, improved customer understanding, and the deployment of new services – requires a significant investment in IT. These developments are driving organizational and cultural changes as IT and OT teams learn to work together to meet common goals. The need to define and deploy new IT systems to support the smart grid is driving greater collaboration between IT and OT and is also providing a set of common objectives that can bring diverse teams together.
I had a chance to explore these issues at the recent Distribution Automation Europe conference in London. At the conference, several distribution network operators – including ESB Networks in Ireland, Helsingin Energia in Finland and Stedin in the Netherland – presented on the work they have been doing on network self-healing systems to reduce the impact of network failures. There were also overviews of automation programs for MV and LV networks from SP Energy Networks in the UK, Vattenfall Finland, Alliander (the Netherlands) and Endesa and Gas Natural Fenosa and in Spain.
I was keen to understand how an audience largely made up of distribution power engineers saw the role of IT. As I listened to the speakers, it became evident that IT is having an impact on distribution network management at three different levels.
The first, and most obvious, impact is via the deployment of new IT systems to support increased levels of automation and intelligence in the network. Many of the projects described at the conference covered engineering solutions requiring little or limited IT support. However, as these trials move into larger scale deployments, IT will have a vital role in monitoring and managing a more automated network. Deploying distribution automation and other smart grid technologies requires consistent, accurate and accessible data on the state of the network. Several speakers alluded to the fact that this is driving investment in new or upgraded distribution management systems (DMS), as well as new outage management and asset management systems.
The second and less tangible influence that IT is having is on the way engineering solutions are designed and deployed. Utilities and grid operators must move away from a traditional project-by-project view of network engineering improvements to a platform perspective more familiar to IT projects. The smart grid requires an architectural approach in terms of standardization and the use of common communication and integration platforms. The increased adaptability required of distribution networks also means that “loosely-coupled” integration will become more important at the network data level, allowing new applications and projects to share data in a rapid, cost effective and yet secure manner.
The third level of impact is organizational. The importance of improving cooperation across IT and operational technology (OT) functions within utilities was evident in the discussion following my own presentation on smart grid IT. How will IT and OT work together in future, I asked, and how can the historic barriers between departments be overcome? Even in the smallish group of utilities present, several paths were being explored for IT/OT collaboration, including bringing IT innovators into the operations team and giving the CIO a greater role in helping define a smart grid strategy.
These discussions about IT/OT relationships in Europe echoed similar conversations we have had with North American utilities during the research for the new Pike Research report on Smart Grid Enterprise Architecture. This is an area that is gaining growing attention in utilities around the world as they adapt to the requirements for successful smart grid deployments. How the relationship between IT and OT evolves will be one of the shaping factors for the utility business of the future.
Tags: Distribution Networks, Smart Grid Infrastructure, Smart Grid Practice, Utility Innovations
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