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Part II: Accenture's Sharon Allan: After smart meters, what's next?

Yesterday, we began a two-part column on how utilities can think rationally into the future to a desired "operational steady state" in order to design IT architecture that can leverage data from various smart grid-related systems for added business value.

Our guide is Sharon Allan, who leads Accenture's North American smart grid services practice. (I urge you to click on yesterday's column, "Accenture's Sharon Allan: After smart meters, what's next?" to get full value out of today's Part II.) Allan will be sharing her perspective with the nation's leading chief information officers, operations and customer services executives at Energy Central's Knowledge 2010 conference, Nov. 8-10, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

(For more thought leadership from CIOs attending Knowledge 2010, click on the following interviews we've run recently: "IT's 'Next Big Thing': business intelligence," "JEA's CIO: focused on flexibility," "Xcel CIO: IT and smart grid.")

Smart grid roadmaps will have many components but Allan emphasized three factors: building for scale, understanding impacts on people and processes and knowing how to measure and track data to extract business value. (The latter, to rephrase it, is the business analytics piece.)

On the perennial question—after AMI, what's next?—Allan finds another opportunity to intone the mantra of advance planning for business process impacts.

"Those who've completely rolled out a true AMI system and are actually billing customers are beginning to look at how to leverage their network for other advantages—for example the condition-based maintenance of transformers," Allan said.

To effectively gather and analyze meter data for condition-based maintenance, a utility should have established the latitude and longitude of every meter and mapped the meters to their transformers, she said. That feeds the geospatial information system (GIS) or whatever system houses the network model and thus, when one seeks to leverage the AMI network for other things such as condition-based maintenance of distribution assets, the proper data is there.

"If you haven't thought through what other things you're going to want to do with your system, you have infrastructure in the ground that cannot be leveraged, because there was data you didn't collect during deployment," she pointed out.

"You'd think what I'm saying is basic, but not everyone has done that," Allan exclaimed.

"One of the challenges when we start automating is getting good geospatial data, which is absolutely key,"  she said. "Get it upfront as you're doing your deployment."

Unfortunately, Allan said, when utilities went from paper wall maps of their grid to digital data, they only ascertained that their assets were indeed there, while omitting much data about the nature and location of the asset—data that could be leveraged later to produce business value.

I returned Allan to a central point that must be top-of-mind at many utilities, which indeed must keep the lights on as they add more complexity to their systems. This past summer I had heard the Colorado Public Utilities Commission implore George Arnold, the national coordinator for smart grid interoperability at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, to guide them on how to make decisions while standards remain in development, while the industry is in so much flux.

In other words, how in heck do you envision an operational steady state down the road with all about you in flux?

"That's a fair question," Allan said. "This is not easy and a lot of jargon gets thrown around in this industry. All industries change. So if you put a stake in the ground [you have a point of reference]. Such plans are living and breathing and must be periodically reviewed, whether that's each week or every quarter. What assumptions have changed? Did the technology cost curve not fall as predicted? The regulatory framework didn't enable something, as we thought it would. But if one hasn't attempted to understand the risks and the impacts, you're heading out on a journey without an idea of where you'll end up.

"One important thread is that this exercise brings alignment to your people and processes," Allan added. "What we're trying to do is to integrate and automate things into the grid. That impacts people and processes. And if that latter part is not addressed, then the value levers—the business outcomes—of deploying technology will not generate the desired outcomes. This is about much more than deploying technology."

Getting this right—taking smart grid efforts operational in a rational, successful manner—is critical to the ongoing political and societal support for these modernization efforts, in Allan's view.

"While there's ample cynicism about the hype surrounding the smart grid, it's a good thing that the power industry is discussed on Wall Street," Allan said. "That's exciting. We're attracting young engineering talent. As an industry we can leverage that hype if we succeed in taking modernization to the operational level."

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

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