Getting ready to operate the smarter grid: How Smart Grid Operations, aligned to ITIL, can enable the Smart Energy Transition

Sep 25, 2019
In the past, the grid was not smart
Equipment was either unmanaged or managed through highly bespoke, isolated and dedicated systems.
Equipment was only able to perform the task it was deployed to do and required a manual intervention to change configuration to perform a different task (or the same task with different parameters). There was very little opportunity to change the way equipment functioned remotely and dynamically.
Equipment was largely unable to notify monitoring teams about potential and actual performance degradations or critical alerts.
Equipment was developed for a simple distribution model – energy was created centrally and then distributed out towards the consumer – always and forever.
In a sense, the grid was “hard-coded” to a specification and was largely mute in terms of how it performed against that specification. Furthermore, that specification is now no longer fit for purpose, when viewed against the changes about to hit the grid.
 
In the past, did we care about operational efficiency?
When we stand back and think about operations of grid a decade ago, can we honestly say that we were aware of operational efficiency? Sure, there was a known cost for maintaining an operations capability (staff, equipment, facilities etc….), but did we really track how operational efficiency was impacting the business?
Perhaps, the limitation was that there was little capability to manage the grid in a dynamic manner, and so the impacts of high MTTR, low MTBF, high MTTP and long time-to-market were not tracked in terms of their business impact – the operational processes were simply focused on fixing the problems when they appeared and trying to proactively maintain selected high-value and high-impact assets.
This one-dimensional view was adequate in a simple model of centralised generation to remote consumers but does not reflect the increasingly complex and dynamic “supply-chain” involved in energy generation and consumption as we go through the smart energy transition.
This situation was especially pronounced in the low-voltage grid, where assets are generally of relatively low financial value (not worth managing), almost entirely manually managed and expected to perform the same role (and the same configuration) from deployment through to end-of-life.
 
Change has to happen
This is unfortunate because it is in the low-voltage grid that the energy transition, driven by the Clean Energy Package and other green energy and conservations initiatives, is going have the largest impact over the next decades:
• Increased distributed generation and storage – using residential scale equipment to generate solar, wind and hydro energy, store locally, and feed back into the local low-voltage grid
• Community energy and micro-grid – balancing the supply of energy within a community to minimise the demand on external centrally generated energy.
Both require a low-voltage grid that is highly optimised, and which can be dynamically switched through modes of operation to maintain that optimisation as demand and generation changes.
 
The thing which is making the grid smarter is software
Software allows Smart Grid equipment to be both multi-function (or at least highly configurable) and remotely manageable. (Lets stop saying equipment because that implies hardware.) This is what is allowing the Smart Grid to transition from a traditional static centralised model for energy generation and distribution to a dynamic, bi-directional, de-centralised model for energy generation, storage and brokering towards the edge and closer to the consumer.
Simply put, through software and its configuration, components (not equipment) of the Smart Grid have functions which adapt over time to the local energy flows and wider contextual demand, consumption and trends.
As we move towards the Smart Grid, we need to review the value of the traditional approaches of managing the grid – initially field-engineers and with cumbersome, isolated and bespoke management solutions for high- and medium- voltage grid. Especially, we need to review the low-voltage grid, where remote management and automation has been absent for all its history. We need to recognise that increasingly, the physical platforms (including the sophisticated IT compute resource build into these platforms) are less relevant and it is the software (and included in that, the firmware) and the configuration of that software which needs to be managed.
 
A new type of issue – the Configuration Error
With this change, the types of issue that must be managed also change. Faults and performance issues will still exist with platforms and communications infrastructure. But, as the configuration of software becomes more important and complex, operational problems related to errors in that configuration will become more of an issue and will have the potential to cause as much service impact as mechanical failures of the pre-smart grid. In fact, in IT and telecommunications network deployment, it is often a poorly planned release of new configuration which causes problems – the configuration and the action of configurating is a source of error.
 
A new type of issue – the Cyber Attack
Traditional grid equipment only needs to be protected from a physical attack. As software starts to dominate the capabilities of the Smart Grid, the opportunities for cyber criminals to attack the grid increase dramatically. Attacks can now be made against the software itself, its configuration and its operation. Operational teams will start to receive indicators of suspicious activity, attacks and successful penetrations, but will traditional styles of grid operations provide the knowledge and responsiveness to cope? Will they even recognise the threat and the attack?
 
A new type of issue – Introducing Change
Change in Smart Grid capabilities will be introduced through releasing new versions of software (or firmware) and new versions of configuration. Introducing change to many 100Ks of meters in a structured way is essential to ensure continued operation through the transition and after completion of the change. Any failures of that change will introduce weaknesses, inconsistencies and vulnerabilities in the infrastructure. The approaches, skills, processes and monitoring tools to achieve release management are very different to those required for a traditional grid.
 
A new type of issue – Monitoring Business KPIs and SLAs
As the grid becomes Smart, its ability to play a role in the overall business performance increases. The operational processes can be linked to business-level KPIs such as customer experience, operational expense, capital expense, revenue leakage, market reputation etc….. Furthermore, operational performance impacts regulatory requirements, such as SAIFI and SAIDI. The traditional grid operational practices need to feed into these KPIs. Operational teams may even become accountable within the business for achieving SLAs. Smart Grid operations processes and tooling need to allow for this business perspective, and tune activities to optimise KPI scores and SLA compliance.
 
This all sounds familiar to IT management specialists
There is a natural convergence between the Smart Grid and the world of IT. Lets draw some parallels:
 
 

This has happened before

Other industries have gone through a similar transition.
Only 30 years ago, the telecoms network looked just like the traditional pre-smart-grid with technology in the centre and passive “dumb” equipment in the field and the consumer premise.
All that changed with the introduction of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and then (a few years later) with the smart-phone – suddenly, the sophistication of equipment in the field and the consumer’s premise (and the consumer’s hand) increased dramatically and started to look more like IT resources than telecoms equipment.
Today, a typical telecoms service provides a DSL (or cable or satellite) modem, a router, a smart phone, often together with broadcast and on-demand TV, in-built value-added services delivered to these end-points, connections to highly sophisticated equipment in the exchange/head-end/base-station, and a number of back-end services hosted by IT infrastructure either at the exchange/head-end/base-station or potentially anywhere, including the cloud. Communications are bi-directional and services can be provided by IT close to what was traditionally the edge of the network. Whilst dedicated telecommunications equipment remains, it is largely software enabled, and most of the high-value services are provided by software solutions.
Processes for the operational management of this technology needed to change to support these new types of resource and service delivery supply-chains. The result, being implemented today, is a set of standards derived from a convergence of TMF eTOM (processes dedicated to the management of telecoms infrastructures) and ITIL (the IT Information Library) which is a process set for the operations of IT infrastructure. It is this practical blending of telecommunications requirements with IT requirements which has let to this successful outcome.

OT and IT Convergence
This change in the telecoms industry is not isolated.
There is a wider trend of convergence amongst Operational Technology (the tools and systems which execute an organisations operations) and Information Technology. The drivers are very similar – initially, operational assets were not very intelligent or “open” in terms of their manageability, and so proprietary tooling was required to manage them, often labelled SCADA. As infrastructure embeds more IT-like characteristics and starts to follow more “open” management, communications and security protocols, there is a natural convergence.
Consider a fleet of trucks as an operational asset of a haulier. A decade ago, these were counted in and out at the depot with a mileage and tachometer check at the end of each day. Now, the truck has GPS, real-time telemetry, and all sorts of driver aids; all driven by software, configuration, reference data (e.g. digital maps and traffic information) which is automatically updated. And the materials in the truck all have RFID so they can be logged into an asset management system via scanning. 
And that is just trucks and haulage – imagine the convergence possibilities for a technology area which is actively trying to be smarter.

Applying IT management concepts to the Smart Grid
ITIL can benefit the Smart Grid, when used in conjunction with specific Smart Grid aligned operational processes.

 

It is grouped into five main process areas – Strategy, Design, Transition, Operation and Continual Improvement. Although developed for the IT industry, it is easy to see how these can become relevant to the Smart Grid as it evolves to contain more and more IT resources.

Not all elements of ITIL are directly or immediately relevant to a DSO’s Smart Grid operations, and all should be blended with those operational processes which are specific to the Smart Grid.

But, that is OK. ITIL is designed so that it can be applied gradually to an organisation, with a focus on those specific outcomes the organisation wishes to achieve. For a DSO operations team, the focus would be on Design, Transition and Operation, with Strategy and Continual Improvement being part of the surrounding organisational context for the DSO operations team.

So, as the focus on business and regulatory KPIs for the ops team increases and more IT is deployed towards the edge and towards the consumer, the following ITIL elements will become important, blended into the Smart Grid operational processes and driven by distinct business outcomes.

 

Keeping the Smart Grid specifics; recognising the differences
Keeping those operational processes which are specific to the Smart Grid is important. In telecoms, the outcome was a blend of two standards eTOM, from the TMF, and ITIL. So should the same approach be provided for Smart Grids.
This is particularly important in security; the Smart Grid has specific threats, vulnerabilities and temptations to the cyber-criminal which are unique to it. Whilst IT security practices can form a template, they do not provide directly applicable solutions. This is one area where the Smart Grid operations teams need to consider carefully – who will attack me, what is their motivation, what parts of the infrastructure will they attack, how will I identify the threat, how will I recognise an attack, how will I know it is successful, how will I respond to it. Answers to these questions can’t be lifted from an IT manual and applied to Smart Grid operations – they are unique to Smart Grid.

Making practical use of this
Right now, Smart Grids are being deployed, and the focus is on rollout and business case realisation. But, soon, the operational efficiency will become more significant, as it becomes more widely recognised that this is an influencer on many of the business and regulatory KPIs upon which the business case is based – specifically, customer experience, reputation, op-ex, cap-ex, revenue leakage reduction and security. The increasingly dynamic nature of the smart grid will need to be managed to meet the demands of the smart energy transition.
Like in the telecoms example, the operational requirements associated directly with a Smart Grid will be combined with a more general appreciation of operating an IT infrastructure, especially in the area of security. At this stage, a new class of operational tools will be required which implement ITIL aligned processes in conjunction with the specific process and technology requirements of the Smart Grid.
Such tools are in development today, in readiness for the point when the IT in the Smart Grid dominates over the physical infrastructure.

A real solution
Networked Energy Services (NES) is a leading developer of smart grid technology. It is investing in a new suite of solutions which are already blending key ITIL concepts with Smart Grid operations to ensure that the Smart Grid can be efficiently operated as the increased embedded IT makes it Smarter. Furthermore, its suite includes new security solutions which are targeted at the specific challenges which are inherent in securing a Smart Grid environment. Currently, NES has deployed its operational management solutions for over 1M meters in Americas, Europe and Middle-east. Its largest deployments are managing many 100K meters.

….For matured markets
The days of using data-centric solutions to meet operational needs, through expensive and bespoke customisation are drawing to a close. As agility and operational process specialisation becomes more important, tools which can be quickly deployed and provide in-built best-practice for operating IT-aligned grid infrastructure will become relevant. Increased focus on the security of the Smart Grid will drive the importance of dedicated security operations tools with in-built knowledge of how cyber-criminals will try to exploit the Smart Grid.

….For emerging markets
Although the focus is often on a rollout and achievement of the first generation of business benefits, the need to maintain the infrastructure in a mode that enables high-performance is increasingly in focus. This is driven the need for operational tools which guide the DSO through the extension of operational processes. From a security perspective, emerging markets often represent an “easy target” – although financial drivers for attack may not be present, the incentive to disrupt social energy schemes and government and NGO sponsored initiatives is very tempting.

….Proven consolidation through standards compliance
NES solution is designed to support any OSGP Smart Grid deployment. In fact, in one deployment, of over 400K meters, NES solutions are managing 3 OSGP vendors, with initiatives to introduce more OSGP vendors into that same network over the next few years.