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Fostering Smart Grid Evolution

A deliberate approach to infrastructure advancement.

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2011

bigger challenges ahead result from the fact that many electric utilities currently employ a complicated and extensively improvised patchwork of systems and processes that fall into two main categories. The first category comprises the known collection of systems and processes that are adequately recognized and understood by their respective communities of interest; for example, the CIS supports customer service and billing processes, and SCADA supports electric system operations. The second category is made up of an unknown number of obscure, possibly unique, and essentially hidden elements—for example, databases, spreadsheets, and applications in individual PCs. Generally, these hidden elements are poorly documented (if at all), poorly protected (if at all), and sometimes disturbingly critical to the utility’s business and operations. Commonly, the elements of both categories are somehow linked with a largely ad-hoc, disjointed, and poorly understood assemblage of electronic and human interfaces that turn the conglomeration of elements into the utility’s own distinct sort of biotechnical system. This isn’t meant as a criticism, but rather as a forthright observation of an important problem. The circumstances confronting us today simply evolved while good people with good intentions did their best to work with whatever resources, constraints, and information they had at the time. Still, in many cases, perhaps most, this is the starting point for smart grid evolution.

The number and variety of significant factors makes it clear that there can be no one smart grid development strategy that will plug and play for most electric utilities. The large body of factors that must be balanced should also make clear the downside of an incidental approach to smart grid evolution, often favoring the sort of expedient solutions that can ultimately work against the long-term interests of the enterprise. Indeed, even the common practice of emulating other utilities can easily lead to costly dead ends, incongruities, and re-works. That’s not to say that expedience is always bad; there will be times when there’s no other acceptable choice. And occasionally the expedient solution is also the best long-term solution. The trouble is that expedience is somewhat akin to an effective but highly addictive painkiller that must be used carefully and only when truly necessary. Thus, it’s reasonable to say that expedient smart grid solutions do have their place, so long as they are judiciously employed and aligned with an overall plan.

Enterprise Framework

Information is the lifeblood of a smart grid enabled utility, and good things will become possible when the right information is provided in a useful form at the right time and place. This means that many sources must provide a lot of information, in many forms, to a lot of places at many different times, and, once provided, the information must be properly managed and correctly applied to its intended purpose. Further, the composite of smart grid elements—including people—and their interactions becomes a fully useful smart grid only when the elements are effectively organized, implemented, and managed as integral parts of the utility enterprise’s overall system of systems. Knowing this, one can see why a utility might want to assemble and use