The Meters are Smart, but What about the Data?

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By Tony Giroti, BRIDGE Energy Group

As smart meters continue to serve as the gateway to broader smart grid initiatives, a missing link has emerged that has prompted many utilities and suppliers to take a closer look at why integrating disparate systems and applications have become roadblocks to delivering new services and solutions. The value to consumers and the utility is not the meter by itself or even the data by itself. The true value is in real-time data integration to develop new processes and capabilities such as load curtailment, self healing, fault location detection and restoration, remote connect and disconnect, advance billing, time of usage and variable rate billing and other demand management programs.

Many utilities employing meter data management (MDM) products and applications in their pilot phases to collect data for various smart grid initiatives such as real-time pricing and grid reliability management, have not developed strategic integration architecture that ties MDM data with other enterprise applications. Without a strategic IT architecture, the transformation from accessible meter intelligence to actionable meter intelligence cannot be realized and the data gathered from smart meter initiatives remains locked in silos. 

Explaining Strategic IT 

What is strategic information technology (IT) architecture? To best dissect it, it is easiest to first understand what strategic IT architecture is not. First, let’s consider the power industry’s technological history. Over the years, the power industry has traditionally been a laggard in adopting IT, either because of a lack of funding or the absence of business drivers mandating strategic IT architecture development. As a result, the motivation for creating a strategic IT architecture, also known as enterprise architecture, has not been compelling.

Until the smart grid era, the industry had minimal real-time integration demands. Most integration needs were met tactically through a one-off and project-based approach. IT never had the motivation, business drivers or budget to develop a strategic and standardized integration approach. Application and data integration requirements were met through a tactical approach based on available technology or middleware offered by the application or system vendor. As a result, quick point-to-point (P2P) interfaces that are non-standard and custom-coded evolved as the norm, simply to achieve short-term objectives. Compounding the issue, many of these interfaces are batch rather than real-time, with database links and proprietary code that is customized by writing more code within the application. This leads to what can be considered an “accidental architecture.”

An accidental architecture occurs when utilities rely on one supplier after the other to develop a custom coded interface between systems. Over time, integration gaps continues to widen as custom code is written for each P2P interface. The viral impact of the point-to-point architecture continues to reduce the overall integration capability, making each change riskier than the one prior because removing one application can make all P2P custom code inoperable. As a result, data continues to be locked in silos and sharing becomes a significant challenge over time. It’s become clear throughout pilot processes that this tactical one-off approach that once served companies well, will not scale to support the larger smart grid and demand response vision. 

P2P and the Ripple Effect 

How has P2P custom code become problematic as MDM products pave the way across many smart grid pilots? Take the example of the popular approach of connecting MDM with customer information systems (CIS) using P2P. That might work for low volume and low transaction pilots. It will not scale, however, to production quality volumes and bi-directional communication models as needed. Moreover, if the CIS is ever to be replaced, the MDM-CIS integration will require redesign and rework. This highlights the case that a P2P integration approach is not scalable, precludes future upgrades, and increases the organization’s risk because any change to the application would have a ripple effect on other downstream applications. The ripple can cause scope increase, greater business disruption, increased risk and higher overall cost.

Next, consider the enormous volume of data produced by smart meters. MDM products and applications being used for various smart grid initiatives call for collecting huge volumes of meter data at 15 minute intervals. For 1 million meters, this data amounts to roughly 1,111 TPS (transactions per second).

Based on these numbers, transactional data collected from customer meters can quickly reach staggering proportions. Some P2P interfaces requiring real-time integration to support multiple transactions require a higher degree of error handling, reliability, scalability, and durability. This is because if more than two transactions using a particular interface occur, then each transaction must be made “thread-safe” so that one transaction does not influence or change the context of the other transaction. Some arbitration logic is also developed to prioritize and serialize the transactions. Poorly written custom code can result in blocked transactions, bottlenecks and latencies due to serialized transactions. As a result, transactions can either get hung-up or fail unpredictably. 

Hope for the Future 

As additional smart meter pilots continue to roll out, utilities are finding that back office integration and enterprise architecture is integral to smart meter and AMI/AMR deployment. Smart grid and demand response (DR) initiatives will require real-time applications and systems integration to enable real-time communication and timely data sharing to make informed decisions. Without the right back office, a tangible return on the investment in AMI, MDM or both cannot be realized. An enterprise architecture and integration strategy is the necessary prerequisite that will help utilities realize the real benefits of their AMI and MDM investments. Without a holistic, strategic IT integration architecture, achieving the true vision of smart grid is simply not possible.

As metering evolves and organizations launch smart grid and DR programs, other IT challenges must be addressed. Once organizations can mine volumes of usage, outage data, peak load and other market and operational data that will be collected from smart meters and other applications, this information must be sourced and consolidated from disparate systems—such as meter readings from MDM, operational data from SCADA, customer data from CIS and outage data from outage management systems. Such data can also be used to improve customer service, lower operations’ costs, increase grid reliability and improve market operations. That will be the case, however, only when a strategic IT architecture is present to support the integration and interoperability required to make it happen.

With so much actionable intelligence at stake in the continued roll out of smart meters, successfully tackling core IT challenges will enable organizations to clearly execute on their vision of developing a real-time integration architecture that will serve as a foundation for all future smart grid and demand response programs.

Tony Giroti is BRIDGE Energy Group Inc.’s chairman and CEO and has more than 23 years experience in managing information technology products, platforms and applications. He is a board member of OASIS and member of the Smart Grid Architecture Committee, U.S. NIST and the GridWise Architecture Council. 

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