Utilities are projected to invest $3 Billion per year by 2015 to upgrade their distribution grids (the low voltage part of the grid) to accommodate increased renewables and energy storage assets and/or replace aging equipment.  At a recent industry conference, Duke Energy presented their vision for the distribution grid and how a solution from the telecom world factors into their strategy to deliver much needed situational awareness.  There are many academic definitions for situational awareness, but it really comes down to having the right information at the right time to make the right decisions.

I spoke with Raiford Smith, Director, Smart Grid Emerging Technology, at Duke Energy to learn how one of the most forward-thinking utilities in the USA plans to manage the increasing complexity of distribution power grids and communication networks.  Smith explained, “We established a vision to utilize a common platform – just like a smart phone houses many apps – to improve utility operations, reduce costs, provide inter-operability, and offer additional value-added customer products and services.”

That common platform includes a network management solution from GridMaven, which was also recently selected by National Grid as part of their Smart Grid “dream team.”  This common platform is critical because like almost all utilities, Duke has siloed views of grids and networks – or one screen per system.  The result of these data silos leads to a serious lack of situational awareness about operations within networks and power grids.

For instance, the Duke Energy test bed in Charlotte, NC includes five different systems used to transport data about communications networks or power grids.  Two systems reside in grid operations and one is provided by a cellular carrier.  The communications network managers work in different locations than grid operations, so there is limited visibility into systems status and device performance between these two groups. If there’s a problem collecting meter data, is that due to a problem with a meter malfunction or a communications node connection?  Perhaps the node is sending alarms about a carrier network fault – but there’s no easy way to correlate that alarm with status information from the carrier’s network management system.   Pity the network operators scanning 5-8 different monitors stacked in front of them and trying to synthesize that cacophony of data into realtime decisions.

Consolidating data about the operational status of devices and networks via a network management solution can expedite root cause analysis and determine the best response for problem resolution for Duke. Smith projects that their Mean Time To Repair (MTTR) metrics will improve the times for fault identification and repairs.  And as their repair times improve, services outage durations and frequencies for customers should decrease.

Duke will evaluate the GridMaven solution to move from reactive to proactive troubleshooting with the benefit of operational costs reductions.    Smith said, “Like most utilities, we run our assets to failure.  That’s not the best way to run a system, particularly when customers depend on uninterruptible service to power their homes and businesses.” Correlating data from disparate systems provides the ability to identify patterns and anticipate trends to failure before they occur.  Utilities like Centerpoint Energy have seen cost savings for proactive, planned equipment replacement due to elimination of overtime costs since maintenance is scheduled during regular work hours.  This is exactly what telecommunications companies have been doing for years with network manager solutions.

There are other specific benefits that Duke Energy expects with deployment of this network management solution, but in the end, all of the reasons come down to reducing costs and downtime and improving operational efficiencies.  The telecom sector has been using network management systems that handle petabytes of information on a daily basis to deliver situational awareness.  It’s a promising sign that electric utilities like Duke recognize the value of infusing situational awareness in their distribution grid to make it a truly Smart Grid.

Note:  The writer manages a consulting firm with clients in the Smart Grid and M2M sectors.  The views and opinions expressed on this blog are purely the writer’s own.  Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer, provider or party in question.