A More Intelligent Utility Network-Not if, But When

From cell phones to fast Internet service, to computers and mobile devices, to Facebook and Twitter, we live, work and socialize in a web of networks. The electric grid-arguably the original network on which modern societies are built-often is taken for granted.

by Kieran McLoughlin, IBM

From cell phones to fast Internet service, to computers and mobile devices, to Facebook and Twitter, we live, work and socialize in a web of networks. The electric grid-arguably the original network on which modern societies are built-often is taken for granted. It underpins those newer networks and powers essential systems for things such as lighting, cooling, refrigeration and medical care.

The grid's design is surprisingly old. Some of it dates back to the late 19th century when the first power plants were built. A virtue of the grid's vintage is simplicity. Traditionally power flowed one way from plants along power lines to customers. The design is adaptable, and it's grown to handle the world's largest electric power network. Yet grid capabilities need an upgrade. Heavy snows in the Northeast turned last Halloween white and caused power outages for 3.2 million customers. Utilities had to restore service where there were no remote sensors, and countless miles of power lines had to be inspected physically to locate faults. If today's grid seems unprepared for our hyperconnected age, it's less prepared to meet new energy-related technologies. Renewably generated power, electric vehicles (EVs) and intelligent appliances are impacting the power grid. The growth of these areas brings more urgency to building more intelligent utility networks.

To get the most from renewables, the grid must be able to accept two-way power flows. For example, energy produced by rooftop solar panels that normally might be used by a building's occupants can flow out to the grid to help meet peak demand. Likewise, wind and solar generation tend to make electricity flows more volatile-when weather blocks the sun or when winds come and go-stressing grid devices. A growing fleet of plug-in EVs also brings more complexity by adding potentially huge, hard-to-predict sources of demand.

Substantial work on the grid is underway. The rise of smart meters is the most visible example. Behind the scenes, utilities are rolling out new devices that will help add the sensory, communication and automated control needed for a faster, more flexible future. The data flow from this fast-expanding deployment of sensors and controllers is predicted to boost the volume of data flowing into utilities by a hundredfold or more. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the data generated from connected technologies within the energy industry is expected to grow 45 percent annually.

Hardware is part of the solution. There must be ways to manage and analyze the data that sensors generate and put it to work to improve grid operations. The grid also needs a more active, adaptive and dynamic operating system. Today's grid is governed by islands of control systems that often are separated by a mix of proprietary standards. At many utility operations centers, there is still limited ability to see what is happening across the web of power lines and substations or at homes and businesses.

A smarter operating system can orchestrate the flow and analyses of electricity and data traffic among utilities, homes, businesses and outside service providers. An advanced grid operating system will link the new and older parts of the grid and will be able to learn from day-to-day operations. Operators can develop models of what conditions typically lead to faults and improve the grid's stability and efficiency.

Steps toward a more intelligent operating system are being taken around the world. In Europe, Malta is upgrading its grid with new hardware and software. The overhaul will give Enemalta, the island-nation's power utility, a real-time view of the electrical grid. The upgrade promises to help identify and respond to potential trouble spots before the network goes down. Likewise, Vermont Electric Power Co. announced it is building an intelligent fiber-optic and Carrier Ethernet communications and control network across the state. The new communications systems will ensure reliability and security of the transmission network and allow utilities to improve power quality and avoid power outages or resolve them faster by relaying information back to the utility about usage, voltage, existing or potential outages and equipment performance.

Meanwhile across the industry, a key ingredient to advanced grid operations is the development of standards that will enable disparate systems and devices to connect and work together across the grid. Human habits are changing, too, with growing cooperation among industry players, partners and regulators to extend these standards and share experiences.

Making the transition to advanced grid operations is complex and must not interrupt existing electrical service. Having a clear road map that sets out the stages is key, as is working with trusted partners who have experience integrating complex software and hardware systems. These partners can help electricity providers plan, develop, test and deploy the operating system capabilities of the future.

The possibilities are beginning to be realized. More advanced grid operations open up new possibilities to make managing energy use more convenient for consumers, to accommodate growing preference for renewably generated energy, and to increase grid efficiency and reliability-all while reducing the need to build new power plants. With the breadth of change underway, the grid will evolve more in the next several years than it has in the past century.


Kieran McLoughlin is the transmission and distribution solutions executive for IBM global energy and utilities industry. He is responsible for developing transmission and distribution solutions and managing and executing the solution portfolio strategy.

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