/ Column / Strike a Balance: Moving from Smart Grids to Smart Operations

Strike a Balance: Moving from Smart Grids to Smart Operations

Erik Shepard on September 30, 2015 - in Column

As computing technology became more mainstream, smaller and more connected in the early years of the 21st century, the opportunity for a smart grid became achievable. More information accessed more quickly could only improve situational awareness and lead to improved safety, reliability and efficiency.

Program names varied (e.g., smart grid, advanced distribution system and grid modernization), but all had the same goals:

  •  Deploy intelligence into the field.
  •  Better manage distributed energy resources and ever-increasing demand.
  •  Improve the ability of operations centers to consume and operate based on improved intelligence.

These programs were ambitious and nothing less than transformational. But after the business benefits were assessed, questions began to arise regarding the significant investment cost relative to benefits. Many utilities began to quietly scale back smart-grid programs—still investing in modernizing the grid, but doing so more conservatively. Smart meters, distribution automation and new investments in SCADA continue, but utilities have begun to look at other opportunities to modernize the grid and its operations.

Connectivity Creates Opportunity

Today’s utilities have another opportunity to leverage the level of connectivity now available to improve field communications and collaboration to save labor hours and improve quality. Although mobile tools have historically been cumbersome and only occasionally connected, today’s mobile tools have several opportunities for deployment that are more streamlined, manageable and better connected.

This is enabling another transformation to provide control centers direct access to data and field information that improves instantaneous feedback on field conditions requiring human interpretation and intervention—something automation hasn’t been able to do well.

But that doesn’t mean utilities should eschew automation—far from it. Intelligent automation in the field, coupled with an empowered, mobile field workforce, can create new opportunities to shorten outage times and improve customer engagement. The business case that considers automation and mobility together gains synergies not present when justifying either technology in isolation.

Outage restoration is a great example to demonstrate such synergies. The smart meter sends a last gasp when it loses power, and, with enough meters, the outage-management system (OMS) can create a predicted device outage. Fault indicators, combined with intelligent breakers and switches enabled with telecommunications and digital relays, can identify a fault location, and then isolate the fault and restore power to a subset of affected customers.

SCADA also can determine voltage drops or overcurrents and send telemetry back to the control center to provide insight to network problems before they become critical. The automated network enables this capability, with real benefits to reliability metrics such as the system average interruption duration index (SAID) and the system average interruption frequency index (SAIFI).

People and Technology

But what automation provides in quantity (an ever-present army monitoring the network), it lacks in a certain quality, the ability to infer. This is where mobility takes over.

The closest damage assessor, armed with a mobile solution fully connected to the control center, can be quickly located based on position and routed to the location of the predicted device outage. Once there, they can assess the damage—something automation can’t do—and confirm a real device outage as well as create an estimated time to repair (ETR). Damage information entered into the mobile solution is transferred automatically back to the OMS, where a dispatcher can determine the most-appropriate crew and route them for repairs.

Working together, automation and mobility allow ETRs to be published to inform customers when they can expect power back on. They allow outage maps to be updated in near-real-time with the current status and number of affected customers. After repairs have been made, operators can leverage SCADA from the control center to remotely operate switchable devices and restore normal operations. Damage information can be fed into capital-planning applications for future investments as well as work management for follow-up work to remove temporary cuts and jumpers made during the outage-restoration effort.

People and technology together comprise a system that works, because it leverages respective strengths. Automation provides the ability to provide data—a lot of data—in volumes and with rapidity not possible manually. People provide the ability to interpret data and turn them into actionable information. They can provide context, confirmation and confidence, but only when armed with mobile tools that allow interactive communication with the control center. The business case that considers automation alone, or mobility alone, misses opportunities to strike a balance and move beyond the cliché of the smart grid to discover opportunities for truly smart operations.


Erik Shepard

About Erik Shepard

Erik Shepard, PMP, provides operational strategy, business justification, and project development and execution for utility technology projects through his firm, Waterbridge Consulting, and in partnership with Massachusetts-based BRIDGE Energy Group.

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