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Energy Central Power Perspectives™: Welcome Mark Damm, New Expert in the Digital Utility Community

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The Internet of Things. Digitalization. Cloud Computing Solutions. We hear about these concepts so much that we run the risk of just assuming that they are typical buzzwords. While some people may throw the terms around freely, in the right hands these concepts are truly transformative and will continue to pace the future of the utility industry (as those working in the field know they’ve already done to an extent). Listening to experts on these topics is the best way to realize their value and ensure that the energy sector doesn’t brush them off but rather embraces the true power of what they can accomplish.

A key leader in this era of the digital utility is Mark Damm, the CEO of FuseForward. Mark recent joined our exclusive list of Energy Central Network of Experts in the Digital Utility Group. Mark’s vast experiences in the world of IT and technological solutions for the utility sector speak for themselves, but to introduce him to the Energy Central community we wanted to dig even deeper. So Mark was kind enough to hop on the phone with me to participate in the Energy Central Power Perspective ‘Welcome New Expert Interview Series.’

Hear some of the exciting work Mark has going on at FuseForward and why the future of the digital utility seems so bright thanks to leaders like him:

Matt Chester: Can you start by giving us a broad level background of your experience in utilities and how you got involved with the IT & systems side of the energy sector, and how that led you to the work you’re doing in those areas today?

Mark Damm: My background spans computer science and mathematics as well as business. My career started in the oil and gas patch in Alberta, working with oil distribution companies and refinery operations. From there I started a consulting firm focused on large system implementations for energy and infrastructure providers, including early real-time control systems and analytics.

Over the years, I got to the point where I felt like I was repeating the same projects over and over again. I wanted to simplify the process, so I ended up inventing and patenting a new way of building these systems using templates and patterns—that was the beginning of FuseForward. Rather than start projects from scratch every time, I wanted to focus on building replicable systems and subscription-based offerings that met the needs of the energy sector.

Around the same time, we formed the Intelligent Systems Research Alliance and completed microgrid research in partnership with several universities. Smart meters were relatively new at the time, and we discovered there was a need for new energy offerings to meet these needs.

 

MC: The energy field was already on a pathway towards digitalization in recent years, but the impact of COVID-19 may be that such virtual operations become more urgent and timely and end up sticking around for good moving forward. What does this sudden transformation require from the fields of IoT, cybersecurity, and other IT concerns you work every day in?

MD: COVID-19 is an accelerator. It’s created a ‘burning platform’ that’s forcing traditional energy and utility companies to transform and adapt in a multitude of ways.

Traditionally utilities operate from a control room – field crews are dispatched, and work is completed with ‘feet on the street’. Now utilities have been forced to apply IoT and sensoring technology to enable virtual operations of energy operations and distributed power plants. You can monitor. You can adjust. You can use vibration sensors to tune your turbine grids.

Overlaying everything though is the importance of cybersecurity. There have always been issues with aspects of a utility’s network touching the internet, like customer service portals for example. As COVID-19 forces utilities towards remote operations and increased IoT, the big challenge is the protection of plant and production systems. COVID-19 is accelerating a lot of security questions and practices within the utility sector.

 

MC: How do IT solutions differ in the utility sector compared with other industries? Are there more unique challenges or opportunities based on the characteristics of utilities that other businesses don’t have, such as operating without competition, being a necessity for all customers, etc.?

MD: I’ve been working with utility operations in cities for over 30 years, and compared to other industries I consider them to be late adopters of technology. They’re risk-averse; they’re not ones that adopt technology rapidly.

We’ve been working with other industries, such as consumer packaged goods, on advanced and predictive analytics projects for a while. Many of the energy and utility companies are just starting to go into that realm. Some of the larger firms are already there; but for the vast majority in the U.S., only a small percentage can afford to spend the IT dollars, even when there’s a return on investment.

MC: As you look back on the past five or ten years in your time with FuseForward, does anything stand out as the most surprising or unexpected in terms of the direction the industry went, the pace certain transformations took, or anything else?

MD: I thought smart grids were going to really take off. We did several demonstration projects that applied smart meter data to asset maintenance issues, and we found that many of the firms out there did not really understand the potential of metering infrastructure and data beyond just billing a customer.

I thought metering was going to drive a new way of doing preventive and predictive maintenance, but it hasn’t yet reached its potential. Meanwhile, the industry is putting more and more meters and sensors in the field. The challenge I see is how to manage and make use of all of the data that is now available?

 

MC: After looking back, let’s peer forward. Can you give us a sneak preview of any new or exciting offerings or developments you have coming out of FuseForward? Tease us a bit!

MD: We looked at the explosion of IoT data in the energy sector and said, how do we go and make use of all of these datasets? Then we asked ourselves: can the utilities afford to do this on their own? No, they can’t - the major players may be able to, but there isn’t a lot of opportunities for smaller utilities to take on complex analytics projects.

FuseForward is currently building a streaming analytics environment, embedded with asset optimization and grid management technologies. We’re creating this as a shared services model, so smaller and mid-sized organizations can get the same powerful analytics technology as the gorillas—at a fraction of the cost. That, to me I think, is what the power of the cloud is going to bring to the utility space. At FuseForward, we’re excited to be leading that charge.

 

MC: With the last question, I’d like to just turn the floor over to you. What last piece of advice, insight, or even question would you have to offer our 200,000+ utility professionals?

MD: I would say: step in. Get involved and partner up with the private sector players and the research community that’s driving innovation in the industry.

You can embrace virtual operations and advanced analytics without taking on all the risks yourself—partner with private sector and academic partners to bring that to bear. We’re all in this together, and we can all provide better public utility services if we partner-up.

The best way to achieve our goals is to move towards more of a collaborative environment and I think Energy Central is driving that. It’s a great way of building connections, sharing information and creating those collaborations.

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Thanks to Mark Damm for joining me for this interview and for jumping feet first into the Energy Central community as an expert. Mark is available for you to reach out and connect, ask questions, and more as an Energy Central member, so be sure to make him feel welcome when you see him across the platform.

The other expert interviews that we’ve completed in this series can be read here, and if you are interested in becoming an expert then you can reach out to me or you can apply here.

Discussions

Afshin Matin's picture
Afshin Matin on Dec 1, 2020

Welcome Mark. Your interview remarks show your experience with the state of the art, at leat for the utility applications, of smart grid solutions and IoT. There will be lot to do as you say in collaborative environments required for development of these digitalized solutions. One thing that comes in mind as a low hanging fruit is to increase the utilization capacity of assets such as the transmission system by applying digital control solutions to the transfer of power. With increased digitalization comes more vulnerability to the system malfunctions and cyber attacks. So the IT nd power professionals have to work together and closely.

Mark  Damm's picture
Mark Damm on Dec 2, 2020

Thanks for your comments Afshin – appreciate it. Applying digital control solutions to the transfer of power sounds like a great first step, have you been involved in any projects like this yourself?

Afshin Matin's picture
Afshin Matin on Dec 3, 2020

Mark, not yet, but I am thinking about what FACTS (flexible AC transmission systems) was designed to do around maybe 10 years ago. One of the functionalities was about fast deployment of VAR resources (SVCs, series capcitors, etc.) to boost voltage and reduce line reactance post a fault disturbance, to keep the system frequency and power angle stable after recovery from the fault. This a multi-node control action activating these resources at the right positions in the network. I understand Smart Grids will have a more advanced and digital versions of these control and communication activities. If the system can be restored with fast control actions it means higher tansfer of power can be made on the line and larger voltage phase angle differences tolerated (larger than a typical 30 degrees). So, a big role for IT here reducing the need for construction of new lines. 

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