Utilities are eager for a raft of new services while embracing new technology to accommodate robust change. However, they are faced by several challenges:

  • High total cost-of-ownership
  • Slow time-to-market to meet changing market needs
  • Limited innovation

Utilities can seize the opportunity in the evolving 21st century, distributed, customer-centric energy landscape by embracing the integrated, holistic and flexible approach.

Plug-and-Play Interoperability to Lower Total Cost-of-Ownership

Utilities went from deploying proprietary solution sets to an environment where the industry now demands interoperability and the ability to integrate solutions together. To initially achieve this interoperability goal, utilities took proprietary communications protocols and started building open standards around them. Utilities begin putting conversion programs in place to make them able to “communicate” with other vendors’ products. For example, DNP is an open protocol that some utilities use between the substation and the control center. However, since many utilities’ older equipment / software was not designed to have a native DNP interface, some utilities wrote conversion programs in the communications frontend (CFE) of their software to get around this challenge. All that is to say that up until now the industry has never been very plug-and-play – utilities have been able to integrate their products to a certain level, but with a lot of effort. Whereas now, with the newest EMS/DMS’s on the market – everything is native with the communications standards, giving utilities true “plug-and-play” capabilities.

Integrated Platform to Increase Time-to-Market and Meet Changing Market Needs

To address the challenge of time-to-market and changing market needs, utilities require technology platforms that are holistic. For instance, having one holistic workflow or one software product as an all-purpose tool from design to test to commissioning and maintenance. As an illustrative example, let’s say that an electric utility has many relay products for specific functions. Hence, it requires one holistic piece of software to configure all relays, rather than having separate software to install each individual functionality, because otherwise an engineer would have to add every functionality one-by-one. Whereas with a holistic platform, an engineer simply has to log onto to a local area network, where all of the smart devices are connected and configure all at once via an easy-to-use interface. Similarly, the same holistic value proposition applies to other types of platforms – for Demand Response and AMI / MDM systems or for designing the control center either at the distribution or transmission level.

Industry Standards to Enable Innovation

To address the challenge of innovation, utilities must adhere to standards. For example, many utilities use the IEC-61850 industry standard as their substation configuration standard, which makes it very easy to develop a standard scheme because IEC-61850 standardizes every signal that could possibly be used. As a result, what would once take weeks to design can now be done in hours. With a standard, the utility has the capability of being completely flexible because no time is wasted in trying to figure something out and make it repeatable. As the standards evolve, we need to ensure that it’s future-proof and innovation-ready.

Utilities, with a century of legacy service, must pivot nimbly to profit in the new era by embracing a technology approach that is integrated, holistic, and flexible.

Sonita Lontoh is vice president of strategic marketing at Siemens Digital Grid.