The electricity value chain of generation, transmission, distribution and consumption has a number of challenges, or pain points, to overcome to deliver all Smart Grid benefits.  Electric utility Smart Grid investment decisions are made on the basis of what reduces or eliminates pain.  There is no “one size fits all” answer in terms of innovations that are true painkillers for them, but here are a few that are most likely to be adopted by utilities.  

The most significant business driver for investor-owned utilities or IOUs is a very simple one – increasing revenues.  That’s particularly difficult with an overall trend of declining electricity use – caused by energy efficiency gains and the lingering effects of the Great Recession.  Electric vehicles (EVs) can be significant painkillers for utilities – creating increased reliance on electricity as the new transport fuel, and thus increased revenues.  EVs may also play roles in helping balance load or the amount of electricity supplied on the grid, another challenge for utilities.  Utilities are well-served to enthusiastically support EV rollouts in their service territories.

IOUs are also very focused on the reliability of the electricity they deliver.   Reliable deliveries impact the amount of revenue collected and can influence regulatory decisions about rate increases or funding for specific projects.  Rate increases are not likely when consumers and their regulatory agencies are upset about frequent or prolonged outages.  Municipal and cooperative utilities are focused on keeping their citizens/members happy with inexpensive and continuous electricity supplies, so solutions that increase reliability are also important to them.

One of the greatest benefits of the transformation to a Smart Grid – is improved reliability.  Replacement of aging equipment with devices that can be remotely monitored and/or controlled has enormous implications to reducing the frequency and duration of outages.  New transformer technologies that are under development will improve reliability and thus be painkillers for utilities.  Just imagine what a smart transformer or two could have done for the December 19, 2011 football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.  

There would have been diagnostic messages that indicated an imminent failure and spurred proactive maintenance procedures.  While smart transformers are still a few years away from commercialization, they will be key painkillers by reducing the number of outages that occur in distribution grids.

These technologies rely, however, on extremely robust and reliable communications networks that overlay the power grid and deliver the bi-directional signals to make the grid a Smart Grid.  Networks include combinations of wireline or fiber connections; microwave networks; public cellular carrier networks; licensed and unlicensed frequency networks that carry smart meter communications; and even satellite signaling for a range of grid operational needs.  Communication networks that experience congestion, delivery delays, or poor service quality could negate the value of many Smart Grid initiatives.  In other words, the communications networks are mission-critical components for the Smart Grid. 

There are two closely related technologies that focus on the maintaining the health of utility communications networks.  Network management systems (NMS) are software applications that provide unified views of communications networks.  NMS solutions eliminate siloed management of these networks, and deliver levels of situational awareness that wouldn’t otherwise exist across these networks.  Improved visibility into network performance helps utilities diagnose problems and dispatch the right responses to eliminate or minimize their impacts.  These holistic views help maintain communications network reliability and security, as well as reduce overall operations costs. 

Closely tied to NMS systems, advanced data analytics solutions that can correlate massive amounts of structured and unstructured data (big data) from NMS solutions and grid operations provide rich information to optimize network management.  For instance, collecting, normalizing, and analyzing the big data involved with network routing, reliability and performance can identify patterns and trends as early indicators of pending problems.  Analytics solutions enhance NMS solutions by putting precision into decisions, thereby reducing network management costs and improving network reliability for complex utility communications networks. 

Unlike smart transformer technologies, there are proven NMS and advanced data analytics solutions available today.  These painkilling solutions are deployed to manage and optimize carrier-class telecommunications networks, which share a number of common characteristics with utility communications networks that cover scalability, flexibility, and complexity.  Utilities will be well-served to look to experienced solution providers from the communications sector to deliver the painkilling solutions that address their communications network management challenges.