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CIS: Middleware Mashup: Smart Grid and the Back Office

Utilities are learning how smart-grid data will interface with CIS and other back-office systems. Meters and middleware are rapidly evolving in this brave new world.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2007

Mike Fish’s job is all about change.

The manager of technology services for Phoenix-based Salt River Project (SRP) is tasked with implementing a revolutionary process for one of the most progressive public power utilities in the country. Specifically, Fish is working to integrate data from SRP’s smart meters (140,000 and counting) into the utility’s back-office processes—particularly customer service and billing.

In this effort, Fish and his colleagues at SRP have learned many things about the promise of smart-grid technology, but one lesson stands out: “It won’t work the way anybody tells you,” Fish says. “There is both real promise and hype. The devil is in the details, and you have to figure out for yourself how it really works in your own system.”

In practical terms, this means utilities will encounter unique challenges when integrating smart-grid data into their back-office processes, such as customer information systems (CIS), outage-management systems (OMS), network operations, and asset management in general. Utilities will need to retool those processes to various degrees, depending on the age and capabilities of their systems, and the type of middleware they put in place to manage the flood of new data. And because the smart grid itself is an evolving concept, its technical structure likely will change over time—requiring software, processes, and strategies to be adaptive and flexible.

“The smart grid is very much in its infancy,” Fish says. “What type of information you will get from it, how you will get it and how you will use it are questions that are still in discussion. But the only way to answer those questions is to figure out where you want to go and start deploying systems. You have to get your feet wet.”

Evolving Vision

The smart-grid vision is evolving quickly as utilities explore and experiment with the possibilities of various technologies. What began for many companies as an effort to reduce metering costs and implement time-of-use (TOU) rates for more customer classes is growing into an honest-to-goodness transformation for the utility industry.

“The call centers of the past were just call takers,” says Joseph Thomas, associate vice president and general manager of client fulfillment at United Illuminating in New Haven, Conn. “Now they have more information to do analytics, and they are becoming advisers and consultants to the customer. It is a significant transformation for the utility.”

The nature of that transformation is difficult to predict, however, because utilities still are learning about the potential applications of smart-grid systems. “As you deploy these systems and get more familiar with the data they gather, you come up with new ideas and processes that can use the information,” Thomas says. “It’s an evolving process, and is part of a strategy for moving forward.”

The obvious applications, after time-of-use billing and demand-responsive pricing, include remote connect/disconnect functions, visibility into outages, power-restoration capabilities, and more efficient asset-management

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