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“Smart Utility” – Just a concept? or Need of the Hour!

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Satish Saini's picture
Sr. Project Manager, Hydro One; Chair, IEEE Smart Grid Technical Activities Committee Hydro One

33 years of accomplished management experience in various fields of energy and power including utilities, consulting and others with number of awards, appreciation letters and recognitions. Holds...

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  • Jan 29, 2019

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The advancement of technology and innovations, the changing environment of market operations, global competition and more profit-oriented approach are triggering the needs of adopting new concepts and strategies almost in all sectors. Concepts and technologies like Blockchain, Iot, Big data, Smart Cities, Smart Grid, Smart Buildings and many more are impacting the infrastructure sector significantly these days. Many of these are still in the conceptual phase and few are in implementation phase worldwide but many are still taken as optional where business entities are moving cautiously while adopting new approaches. with lots of changes and incorporating new emerging technologies and solutions. But despite all, the need to be more productive, cost-effective, efficient and be profit-oriented is the basic driver to run any business entity whether it is a public service entity or investor-owned unit.

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Out of all the infrastructure segments, utilities, especially electrical utilities have a much larger role and impact with respect to all other “Smart” infrastructure concepts and programs because Energy is the biggest business in the world economy with annual turnover near a whopping $ l.7 trillion. The economic growth potential of any country or its GDP is greatly influenced by the overall availability and consumption of energy. When we talk about energy and power, the major attention is mostly on the availability of energy supply sources i.e. the generation segment. But without a strengthened and efficient transmission and distribution grid there is no easy way to supply the reliable power to the end consumers.

“Electrical Utility” organizations especially in the field of transmission & distribution are the backbone of this energy system. Whatsoever energy we generate or we go on adding generating resources, but if we don’t deliver it to the end consumers through an efficient and smart network then we can’t expect of a reliable, productive and cost-effective utility infrastructure and not even a viable business option. The time is almost gone where utilities will depend upon unlimited funding, subsidies and sops from the governments or public / tax payer’s money irrespective of their profit or loss or inefficient operations. The changing economic environment, customer expectations, market deregulation, increased globalization and all that are triggering the need of utilities becoming sustainable and operating more smartly with no other choice to survive.   

How can a Utility become a “Smart Utility”?

When all its performing segments of the utility are functioning efficiently and smartly!

For simplicity, utility functions can be segregated into three major operating components like- administrative, commercial and technical to operate, maintain and manage all its assets. Utilities across the globe need to adopt and implement innovative technologies, products and solutions to manage the grid in a cost effective and efficient way and with optimum efficiency and performance levels at all its three key segments.

Do we have tools and techniques available for a Smart Utility?

On-going research, developments and innovations in state-of-the-art cutting-edge technologies, products and solutions related to Smart Grid, ADMS and related fields are providing a great opportunity. Most recently the traditional transmission and distribution grid is going through a big transformation involving “Intellect”, “Excellence”, “Innovations”, “Technologies “and, “Products, Services & Solutions”. Smart Grid (both transmission & distribution) is one such concept or technological solution involving all the above; developed and being implemented to strengthen the power grid to supply a reliable, affordable and quality power with improved overall system efficiency.

The basic concept to be utilized is “We can’t manage and control what we can’t monitor”.

The traditional grid does not have much options to monitor and control the whole transmission and distribution assets over a large geographically scattered area leading to low reliability, longer duration outages, lower customer service quality, inefficient usage of the manpower and resources. Over and above, the nature of the electricity system operation which includes the Real-time balance between the supply and demand at all times make it more complex and triggering the need of all this ‘monitoring, manage and control on Real-time basis”.

The new Smart Grid technologies and concepts are based on “Monitoring” the grid on real time basis; provide events and other “Reports” on system operating parameters and performance; help take proactive and timely actions to “Control” and “Operate” the relevant assets; and to help “Plan”, “Manage” and “Maintain” the overall system with reduced “Technical and Commercial losses” in a cost-effective way with enhanced efficiency.

On the physical system implementation- these objectives are achieved by installing sensors and monitoring devices on various assets along the grid, added with tele-communication system to communicate with a central monitoring and control room to transmit and receive commands, data, status and other signals. All these are tied together through latest IT systems, servers, computers and software programs.

“Smart Utility” concept is an integrated approach to make the overall utility smarter in all its segments of operation and management including Technical functions, Commercial operations, Customer services and all Administrative decisions. This is achieved through a customized and comprehensive solutions developed and implemented based on the particular utility organizational set up and its operating and management procedures.

Though al this sounds bit easy, understandable and the need of the hour- but still it has numerous challenges. The biggest challenge especially in the utilities and its manpower operating on traditional concepts and philosophies is the basic nature and issue i.e. ‘resistance to change” in additional to other operational, administrative and management challenges.

Developing and implementing smart technologies and solutions in bits and pieces and in silos rather than a comprehensive solution is another challenge. As per various case studies, experience and communications with multiple stakeholders and utilities across the globe by the author it has been found that there are numerous products, technologies and solutions available to achieve above objectives but majority of them are implemented in bits and pieces where internal Lines of Business in the utilities were working in silos while developing and implementing the technology or the product with limited deliverables. So, the utilities were not able to get the full potential benefits due to these challenges and gaps in internal communication and coordination with all relevant lines of business. Majority of such challenges exist with larger utilities where there are multiple Lines of Business with different reporting authorities and all working in silos with different mandate, objectives, mission and vision. This leads to application of a particular product and technology in bits and pieces and in silos rather than a comprehensive solution and the utility is not able to improve all of its operations and other functions in enhancing overall efficiency and achieving optimum return on investments.  

The gap between the diverse working atmosphere in the end user utilities and the in-depth understanding, knowledge and expertise in the developing technology industry is another challenge. Although the overall functional, operational and performance needs of the utility industry is the same but still each utility has different organizational set up and different functional procedures and processes at different levels. There are different coordination procedures between various Lines of Business within a utility performing various jobs like- planning, design, operation, management and maintenance jobs for the transmission and distribution grid assets. 

The majority of vendors, suppliers, consultants and the other industry experts have the required knowledge and expertise to develop any innovative product with latest technologies based on the basic operations and needs of a utility. But majority of them don’t have the access to the detailed internal operating procedures being adopted and followed by various utilities.

The third challenge again with the utilities is the lack of required knowledge, expertise and skills regarding the latest available technologies, products and solutions at desired levels of staff working on the planning, development and implementation of these initiatives in the utility.

Is there a solution to meet these challenges?

Yes, of course. These technologies and concepts can be implemented more effectively and the gaps can be filled by designing and developing a customized and comprehensive technology solution relevant to the operations and needs of the overall utility to get the full benefits from its application in all segments. All relevant stakeholders from relevant Lines of Business should be engaged from the beginning conceptual planning phase to final in-service stage while working closely with the vendors and suppliers. But all this also needs an experienced, knowledgeable and a dedicated leader with a positive attitude to bind together all the bits and pieces in technology, solution and the manpower. This will also need a well-directed mandate from the top authority in the utility with One common objective.

Is this just a conceptual wishful thought or Case Studies are available?

The author had the opportunity to lead numerous smart grid programs and projects right from late 1990s. In one such program funded by World Bank in South Asian region in a utility sub-division all the above gaps and challenges were resolved with a centralized direction and strategy. A core team was formed and a detailed carefully designed coordination plan was developed in the initial phase between the utility staff from all relevant Lines of Business and with the vendors, suppliers and consultants to develop a customized solution rather than just implementing a generic product. The final solution developed was meeting all the criteria for a “smart utility’ to significantly enhancing efficiency in all segments of the utility operations. The whole comprehensive solution significantly impacted the Return on Investment (ROI) and Pay-back period other than above benefits.  The original plan as initiated by the World bank was to just segregate the assets on the rural distribution feeders with Remote Controlled devices and through a DMS and telecom technology using a basic Remote-Controlled Load Management System (RCLMS) with a pay-back period of 5 years. But with all the customization, modifications- the applications of the concept and technology were expanded with the same overall frame-work to address all three operational segments of the utility sub-division like Technical, Commercial and Administrative functions. The final product reduced the pay-back period by more than 50%.   

The author is leading this initiative on “Smart Grid technologies and concepts for a Smart Utility” in IEEE Smart Grid program under its Technical Activities Committee. He can be contacted for any questions on case studies and any further guidance for developing and implementing such programs and concepts and also for upcoming supporting matter on this.


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