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Utilities embracing IT-OT convergence

After Tropical Storm Irene and Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in 2011 and 2012 respectively, a lot of electric utilities took stock.

Among them was the United Illuminating Co. subsidiary of New Haven, Conn.-based UIL Holdings Corp.

“The need for damage assessment, streamlining the work process and customer communication became the primary focus of the company,” said Joseph Thomas, UI’s vice president of electric system operations.

That meant replacing UI’s supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system and its call system, upgrading its metering system to one capable of two-way communications and rolling out new mobile technology for UI and UIL’s gas-company subsidiaries.

But that wasn’t all.

“The key was the new systems needed to integrate,” Thomas said.

That’s why UIL contracted consulting firm Accenture and a Houston-based energy consulting firm called The Structure Group to integrate ABB's Outage Lifecycle Management software with UI’s information-technology and operating-technology systems.

The integration will enable UI to automate the processes that begin when an outage occurs, from dispatching crews to notifying customers of restoration times.

“A lot of utilities have invested a lot of money in their key systems, but now really the focus is better integration of those systems to help streamline business processes, provide better customer service and quicker restoration, and hopefully reduce operating expense,” Thomas said.

The integration, or convergence, of utilities’ information-technology systems and operating-technology systems was named one of the Top 10 tech trends impacting the utility industry this year by Stamford, Conn.-based research and consulting firm Gartner Inc.

Power companies “see if they make this type of transition, then that can change a lot of the way they do business,” said Scott Koehler, the vice president of global strategy for smart-grid IT at Schneider Electric S.E., the Rueil Malmaison, France-based energy-management and automation company.

The largest technological driver of the convergence is the development of ubiquitous computing and connectivity.

The equipment in generation, transmission and distribution systems has long had some intelligence, even if it consists solely of the equipment’s ability to detect a limited range of problems and shut itself down or disconnect itself in response to one of them.

Now, however, the equipment’s intelligence has increased; the amount of intelligent equipment has increased; and much of the equipment communicates its status in real or near-real time.

That makes possible — and is made possible by — the deployment of smart-grid technologies, including advanced metering infrastructure and synchrophasors.

But the effects of ubiquitous computing and connectivity reach beyond the grid and into power plants and grid control rooms. There, over many years, equipment went from being controlled by a combination of automation technologies and humans to being controlled by software systems with human oversight.

Those systems, including SCADA systems, and various brands of operating systems, also are capable of producing real-time and near-real-time data. And the Internet enables that data to be sent to every party interested in it — including the companies that own the equipment the systems control and monitor; the operator of the grid that takes the power from the equipment; and the companies that make and maintain the equipment.

One result is that power generators’ expectations have changed, said Wally Walejeski, the product manager for utilities for Meridium LLC, a Roanoke, Va.-based developer of asset performance management software. They now want to avoid not just the outright failure of a piece of their equipment, but any condition that could prevent them from producing the power they are contracted to produce.

The IT/OT convergence both makes that possible and is necessary for it to be possible. Not only is it no longer enough to have a wise engineer with the mechanical equivalent of Spider Sense who can tell that something is wrong with a piece of equipment by listening to it or putting his hand on it, Walejeski said that such people no longer exist.

Instead, today’s workers look up the operating history of a piece of equipment and the readings it’s presently producing to see if any action needs to be taken about it.

“Tying [the historical] data sources with real-time information, sensor-based information, just makes the decision process that much better,” Walejseki said.

Of course, the workers aren’t making decisions by crunching the historical and real-time data themselves. For that, they need analytics.

Once the province of IT — which is why they originally were called “business analytics” — analytics have not only moved into OT, they’ve spread to its far corners. Power companies not only can analyze historical data, they can analyze data as their equipment is sending it in, and compare that analysis to previous analyses of historical data to see how their equipment is functioning in ways they never could before.

“In order to understand the patterns you have to look for [in the data being streamed], you have to analyze the historical data,” said Alyssa Farrell, the manager of the global energy practice at SAS Institute Inc., a Cary, N.C.-based developer of analytics software.

Streaming analytics has existed for a while — a common example, Farrell said, is the analytics being performed on data that airplanes produce as they fly.

But, she said, it’s really taken off over the past decade, in part because that’s how long OT systems have had enough intelligence built into them to make streaming analytics possible.

In the power industry, Farrell said, streaming analytics, and the IT/OT convergence it makes possible, have taken off more recently, in part because the costs of various sensors had fallen to the point that installing lots of them was economically feasible, and in part because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act offered grants for the installation of some of them, such as synchrophasors.

The growth of distributed intermittent generation also has played a part, as power companies and grid operators need real-time information about it to keep their systems functioning smoothly.

“As soon as the clouds come over and the wind stops, they need to switch to a different kind of peaking plant or a different distributed resource,” Farrell said.

Despite the wonders it promises to produce, the IT/OT convergence is not without problems.

For one thing, it involves connecting systems that, however similar they may be now, were once very different. After all, much OT had to function in extreme conditions, while IT’s backbone was computers in specially designed rooms with highly monitored environments.

Additionally, OT is still mission-critical, while much IT is not. A company’s power plant failing is much more serious than a website glitch that prevents its customers from paying their bills online for a few hours.

“The OT … tends to be highly specialized, highly specific and in every case business critical, if not out and out safety and personnel critical,” said Steve Sarnecki, the vice president for the federal and public sector of OSIsoft LLC, a San Leandro, Calif.-based developer of operational-intelligence software.

As a result, Sarnecki said, there are times when IT and OT systems need to be separated, and the connections between them must be designed to reflect that.

The connections between IT and OT systems also must reflect the fact that they are potential gateways for hackers interested not just in stealing the identities of electric-utility customers, but in attacking the country’s power grid.

“There’s a move for the utilities to monitor these interconnects, so they can make sure they’re behaving as expected,” Sarnecki said.

Additionally, the urge to keep operations technology isolated to protect it has been built into the DNA of power companies for decades. But that’s changing, too.

For example, Sarnecki said, nuclear-power operators used to be against the idea of digital controls. “But in recent times, they’ve started to become more comfortable [with them] and almost desirous of moving towards digital capabilities.” 

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