THERE are a number of factors driving change in the utilities sector. In many countries, overall energy consumption is declining while peak demand remains constant or is increasing. This puts further strain on distribution assets while undercutting traditional energy consumption-based cost recovery models. Locally, the recent series of blackouts in South Australia have made consumers anxious about the reliability of the grid and their utility providers.

At the same time as these challenges, the emergence of the digitally enabled grid is resulting in the deployment of potentially millions of new intelligent grid devices into a distribution network – including smart meters, line sensors and on-load tap changers – all generating valuable information across all parts of the business.

The increasing complexity of managing distribution networks and the doubts about reliability are driving utilities to look for improved approaches to optimise their systems. The integration of information technology and operational technology (IT/OT) – and, critically, the new combinations of data that such convergence generates – is the key for utilities to meet these challenges and opportunities in the sector today.

Broadly, IT/OT integration can be defined as bringing together the data and information from operations, enterprise systems and external sources, powered by advanced analytics. This combined data is essential to obtaining the potential value of smart solution deployment into the network. Without it, the network cannot achieve the potential efficiency and effectiveness of a smarter network, and the ability to offer new services will be curtailed.

Distribution utilities see three areas as important points of focus for IT/OT integration: unplanned outage management, asset management, and integrating distributed generation through monitoring and control.

An outage management system is one of the key potential uses emerging from IT/OT integration. For example, smart metering can provide near-real-time monitoring of outage status, allowing improved fault identification, particularly for outages on long radial lines in remote areas, as well as nested network failures in more suburban and urban areas.

For most utilities, the current process to respond to an outage and restore power is a critical driver of cost. It requires a number of processes, each of which must follow in sequence, with relevant information managed through a series of “handshakes” and “hand-offs” between control rooms, dispatchers and maintenance crews. Being able to enhance situational awareness across that chain with additional data about faults and crew availability will help utilities achieve considerable savings. More sophisticated data can even identify and analyse the optimal deployment of crews to avoid excessive overtime payments.

Management of unplanned outages can also be significantly improved by more effective automation and planning that is possible by integrating data from multiple sources. Advanced switching capabilities in the medium-voltage network would enable utilities to optimise the customer experience, ensuring that as many consumers as possible experience little to no downtime.

Advanced asset management is another key benefit of IT/OT integration for utilities. Aging assets, reinforcement requirements from distributed generation deployment and constraints on accessing assets—particularly in cities—are increasing the pressure to improve the life-cycle management of assets.

The ability to effectively harness data within asset management planning will require analytic tools and skills that most utilities may currently lack. But these tools and skills will be essential for distribution companies to move successfully from planning policies based on largely historic statistical models to nearer real-time data that can support more granular, asset- and circuit-specific actions and interventions. Accurate data flows from assets can also enable distribution companies to take account of their operating environment’s unique conditions in order to make decisions that reflect their real-world context.

Monitoring asset health and performance in real time could enable utilities to make more effective engineering decisions, as well as plan and allocate capital expenditure more accurately and effectively. That capability will become increasingly important as regulatory funding becomes more incentive- and performance-based.

The final key priority is the integration of distributed grid technology through IT/OT integration. The increasing deployment of distributed generation (DG) is raising big challenges and costs for distribution companies that need to reinforce the network in order to manage these new forms of supply. While small to moderate quantities of DG can often be incorporated into a distribution network with limited negative impacts – and sometimes benefits – there comes a tipping point where utilities have to look for new approaches.

Traditionally, this has been through network reinforcement to increase capacity. However, due to the high costs of this approach, many utilities are turning toward digitally enabled solutions as an alternative.

These smart approaches to DG integration require the availability and analysis of considerable flows of data. The integration of IT/OT data will be essential for distribution companies to achieve more efficient integration of DG, limiting the requirements for large capital reinforcement spend or any adverse impacts to the network reliability.

We see three progressive phases or levels of IT/OT integration that will enable distribution companies to manage the impact of DG more effectively.

The first, basic level sees DG output data incorporated into network planning.

The next level achieves real-time network monitoring supported with output data from DG and enables the distribution company to take actions, specifically curtailment of DG output to optimise grid stability.

The most sophisticated scenario sees grid operators empowered with technology, such as smart inverters, that allow them to control services from DG beyond curtailment and create a more flexible, responsive grid. These include the ability to flex output, control voltage and draw additional power in response to fluctuations in demand.

There are a number of steps utilities organisations should take to move towards IT/OT integration:

  • Review the governance structure – Organisations need to create an integrated structure, blending together IT and OT governance. Senior executives should lead communication that it is part of a larger business transformation, not a new system.
  • Define the convergence approach – This means building an intentional IT/OT convergence zone into large technology delivery programs, developing internal talent with a strong understanding of both IT and OT, streamlining processes, and progressively evolving data availability.
  • Develop cyber security – Greater connection between previous stand-alone systems and datasets could increase vulnerability to cyber-attack. Utilities should build cyber-attack resilience into the systems and the process design upfront.

IT/OT integration is fundamentally about making information available where it has the greatest impact and benefit, irrespective of the organisational silo responsible for that information. In order to create more reliability during outages, manage their assets more effectively, and integrate distributed grid technology, IT/OT integration is crucial.

Article by Simon Vardy is Accenture Strategy Utilities Lead for Australia and New Zealand.