Walk into any North American utility today and you’ll witness something completely different from what you might have seen a decade ago: different groups within the company working together across silos – and not just because there’s a power outage to address. The reason? Utilities are adapting and changing with the times.
A decade ago, it was not uncommon for utility departments to operate in separate and distinct silos. Operations and engineering dealt with the grid. The customer service team dealt with billing. The regulatory team managed the expectations and needs of the public utilities commission.
Around that time, I paid a visit to an investor-owned utility to discuss its smart meter project. My meeting was initially with the customer service group that had been charged with delivering advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to the utility. After this meeting, the customer service group had an epiphany: the data coming from smart meters could not only be used for new billing programs but also for operational use cases like voltage management. These smart meters were tapping into valuable data from the secondary side of the network. The customer service folks also realized that voltage management could have as big an impact to their smart meter business case as some of the programs they were contemplating from a customer perspective.
I had the benefit of sitting in on the first meeting between the utility’s customer service group and its distribution engineering group. Watching the two sides of the business meet was like the last episode of the TV show “Lost” when the survivors of the plane crash realized they’d been living on the same island as “the Others.” It showed me both the promise and the challenge of IT/OT integration.
Data Drives Change
These two groups had coexisted for decades without a common language or understanding of business processes. The opportunity to bring these two groups together into a united business process was heightened by the chance to produce meaningful outcomes from the smart meter data. Not only could we meet the mission objective of automated billing, new rate offerings and reduced customer service costs, but we could also deliver improved distribution grid operation and design.
The challenges were of equal magnitude, however. The back-office applications required to operate both customer systems and operations systems had no ties. None. No integrations, no understanding of performance, no common ownership. They were even housed in different data centers. Enabling the utility to leverage this smart meter data required not only new data connections, it also required significant changes to business processes, data governance and cybersecurity execution.
Fast forward a decade and this utility is alive with smart meter data. The utility uses smart meter data from its AMI network for almost every aspect of its operations. Smart meter data facilitated not only a revolution in the way the utility operated, it brought people within the utility together in a manner they had never foreseen. All made possible through the power of IT/OT integration.
IT/OT Integration Continues to Grow
The opportunities and challenges for IT/OT integration are even greater now and are expanding beyond the utilities. Developers, commercial and industrial customers are becoming more independent by investing in their own generation. Residential customers are becoming more sophisticated by deploying packaged solar and battery storage, or by purchasing electric vehicles. PUCs continue to create new regulations. Infrastructure continues to age. All of this combines to create an environment that is perhaps as daunting as when the grid was first constructed.
With this new wave of possibilities for IT/OT integration, utilities need to:
- Proactively work with various stakeholders and third parties to create an environment of partnership
- Coordinate conversations around data governance
- Standardize communications protocols
- Reimagine customer engagement, and
- Evolve traditional engineering and planning practices.
The good news? TRC enables our clients to seize these opportunities from end to end to leverage bidirectional data and drive operational efficiency and resiliency within the distribution network.