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Is IT eating T&D?

Transmission Tower and Man

Right after the flurry over smart grid began to die down, there came an uptick in chats about the blending of information tech and operations tech. That’s now the current debate at every industry conference. But, is it hype or is it really happening?

We asked Miroslav Begovic, president of IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) and professor of electric energy research at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.

His answers may surprise you.

Intelligent Utility: Is there an IT takeover of T&D, and is that a bad thing?

Begovic: I wouldn't call it a takeover. IT is a great tool among many others that the power and energy industry is using to support its operation. It has been part of our system monitoring and control infrastructure for a long time. Initially, the technology was so limited in its capabilities to assist power systems that there was no concern about it ‘taking over’. Thirty years ago, the IT revolution began, and large amounts of measured data were obtained and distributed across the system. It took a long time for utilities and their engineers to become comfortable with it. Today, IT is assisting the system, but power systems are designed with many layers of autonomy. The power grid started as a system of completely autonomous devices being interconnected, each protecting itself, and that protection and control still exists. So, if you take out the layer of IT, you wouldn't reach the point when a system is completely helpless if system-wide monitoring and communication fails, and that's important for the system integrity and resilience.

The time scales at which responses are needed, in some cases, are measured in milliseconds, and such assistance cannot come from a human operator, nor from relatively simple apparatus that was used a couple of decades ago. So information technology is here to last, but there is also a concern about its limitations and reliability of data collection and communication, and accuracy and security of the data, among other things. If the data is accurately and correctly processed and quickly communicated across the system, then it is a great addition to system operator’s situational awareness tools. If circumstances prevent that from happening and if the reliability of the overall IT support is less than the reliability of the system without IT and then it could be destructive at best or worse, it could be responsible for taking the system down, and producing a blackout or degraded performance.

For example, if the monitoring and communication infrastructure is exposed to elements such as hurricanes or tornadoes, instead of protecting the system, it will be wiped out along with the power grid that it is protecting. So, that is one situation where utilities have a legitimate concern that an additional layer of expensive and highly capable information technology would not be of much use. But such situations can be overcome by designing systems that are highly reliable, that will not use the same information pathways as energy pathways, and, in general, it is possible to deal with those concerns successfully.

Intelligent Utility: What benefits does adding an IT source to the transmission power process bring?

Begovic: At the transmission level, it transmits a lot of useful information about the system, and it enables system operators to recognize conditions that may degrade its ability to function. System monitoring, operation, protection and control is not only about knowing what is the state of the system, but also being able to quickly predict the threats and possible paths to degradation and cope with them quickly using all available resources.

Intelligent Utility: What drawbacks are we looking at?

Begovic: Big data is certainly something to watch. For 30 years, synchrophasors have been used as an example of the new generation of system support at the transmission level (and even at the distribution level). However, for a long time, they have been just a potentially useful technology because it generated considerable amount of data (by devices produced by different manufacturers which were not enabled to communicate effectively with each other), and it was overwhelming for the computers of the time. Developing applications that know how to extract useful information from the big data and how to use it effectively is a very important part in that process. We are only now, 30 years later, beginning to see the outlook for a wide cast network of synchrophasors across the US and many other power grids and applications developed to support them.

Intelligent Utility: Is it worth the risk that we're opening up the distribution process to hackers and foreign states?

Begovic: Our society is greatly concerned about privacy, cyber and physical security of energy and other critical infrastructures. These are legitimate concerns within the power and energy sector and among consumers, and IEEE PES members and their employers, the utilities, are addressing them very seriously by developing standards and technologies to proactively deal with these issues.

Utilities are paying considerable attention to this area, as the technologies being implemented are very expensive, and such disruptive changes in operational practice usually don't happen without policy assistance. That has been one of the reasons why we see such a major revolution in the structure, design and operation of energy systems today, after sustained support of many governments in developed countries to modernize and enhance the aging energy infrastructure.


[Editor's note: IEEE Power & Energy Society ( and other IEEE organizations have been invited by the U.S. government to evaluate the effects of energy policy that the current administration put in place four years ago, including the White House’s Quadrennial Energy Review (QER). Additionally, they’ve been involved in meetings organized by European Union High Commissioner of Energy.]


Kathleen Wolf Davis is the Editor-in-Chief of the Intelligent Utility Magazine and can be reached at

This article was first published in October 2014 on


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Thank Kathleen for the Post!

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