Without the appropriate intelligence and systems, the smart grid is merely an expensive version of the traditional power grid. It is Information technology (IT) that makes the smart grid truly “smart.” The importance of IT systems is being recognised and the figures speak for themselves- Navigant Research predicts that utilities’ spending on IT systems for the smart grid will grow from US$8.5 billion in 2013 to US$19.7 billion in 2022.
The challenges that utilities face
Electric utilities are faced with major challenges when acquiring and integrating new and upgraded IT systems:
- A flooded market-There are numerous IT solutions on the market, and choosing the appropriate one can prove to be a daunting task. Utilities will need to take care when choosing a system that suits their operational and business needs. The wrong decision can mean unnecessary financial losses. This is especially true when it comes to choosing poor quality, low cost technology. This is probably not the place for utilities to save a buck. Utilities should rather consider buying from companies that have proven track records as far as service goes, as well as reliable products.
- Big data-A major challenge for this market is the sheer volume of data that new sensing and automation devices will deliver. That data must be stored and analyzed, as well as shared with a variety of IT systems. This is an expensive process which is good for vendors, but less so for utilities.
- Investments-Utilities may find it difficult to obtain approval from regulators as they may be reluctant to approve large investments with limited “real-world” examples of measurable benefits to ratepayers. With time, this process may become easier as technology could lower in price due to competition in the market. Regulators may also be more willing to approve projects as the number of successful implementations grow.
The difficulties associated with legacy system replacement and new system integration are not to be sniffed at. However, the potential benefits are real and are becoming increasingly measurable in terms of grid efficiency, reliability, and financial viability.
Too risky not to invest
Utilities do not have a choice but to follow this path of change. The technology will make both the grid and consumers smarter about the flow of electricity with sensors, telecommunications, and computer technology. The rate of return on these investments must be tied to providing benefits to consumers and the environment.
Simply put, it would be too risky not to invest in new smart grid IT solutions for the following reasons:
- Operational efficiency will suffer-The technology helps the grid to resist attack, it provides power quality for 21st century needs and accommodates all generation and storage options. The technology will help optimise assets as utilities will be reacting to new data efficiently and effectively.
- Poor asset maintenance-The technology has self-healing characteristics which decreases the need for field visits. This is especially useful during big storms which can cause large-scale blackouts. Without the technology, utilities will not have easy and unlimited access to granular data concerning the status of their network components, thus affecting the grid’s operational efficiency.
- Regulators requesting consumer data
- The consumer-utility relationship is at risk as the customer would be excluded. The consumer would not be motivated to save energy or provide the utility with useful consumption data. There is a major risk of losing consumers to competing utilities.
- Markets would not be enabled
The need for independent IT utility experts
By hiring an independent IT consultant, many of the risks and obstacles can be avoided. There are many reasons why utilities should hire an independent consultant . Here are a few:
- Proper implementation-The consultant will help make the integration of systems, across departments, seamless. Once this is in place, a system’s potential is truly maximised.
- Skills and experiences-Consultants can offer the utility very specific skills and experiences in order to assist with the purchase and implementation process of the IT solution. Often, the utilities’ employees do not boast this level of experience and expertise.
- Objective viewpoint-Consultants have the advantage of looking from the outside-in. With this viewpoint, obstacles are often uncovered and overcome more efficiently.
Without the support of IT solutions and independent IT consultants with the relevant skills who are industry aware, the smart grid is rendered useless. It is therefore essential that utilities plan and budget for these when planning to implement the smart grid.