HomeDigitalizationBig DataThe silver lining in the Cloud for utilities

The silver lining in the Cloud for utilities

Guerry Waters, vice-president of Industry Strategy at Oracle, explains to Diarmaid Williams why utilities have been ‘late to the game’ in terms of the Cloud and highlights where they go from here

Oracle has introduced an expanded platform set to help utilities deal with the explosion of distributed energy resources which is challenging conventional thinking in the sector.

The Utilities Network Management System 2.3 platform enables utilities to make the transition to a customer-centric grid by giving operators real-time visibility across all grid and pipeline assets and eliminating the complexities of siloed data and applications.

“The information we have is that north of 90 per cent of utility executives are interested in the Cloud and have a good understanding of its economic value,” says Guerry Waters, vice-president of Industry Strategy.

A recent study by Oracle found that 83 per cent of US utility regulators surveyed believe the cloud to be an important technology trend and 67 per cent agreed that the cloud will be critical to utilities’ future success.

According to the findings, 33 per cent of regulators already have a specific and comprehensive strategy for Cloud, and 69 per cent either have, or will have, a team that focuses on understanding the role of Cloud technologies in utilities. So what of the rest – what particular concerns hold them back from fully embracing it?

“Two issues come up,” says Waters. “Firstly, will we be able to capitalize on the expense of putting Cloud technology in place and secondly, there was concern about security, in backing up data to an off-site location.”

Oracle has been there before, with the banking and retail sectors out in front in adopting the technology. In a sense, it’s been road-tested already by those frontiersmen.

“Here’s the facts on the security issue,” explains Waters. “The financial and retail industries and others have been doing Cloud for some time, while utilities are late to the game. There has not been any incident where Cloud technology has had a concern in terms of security. We go to great lengths to secure the data in our environments, with redundancy of backup and other technologies to prevent intrusion.

“From a utility perspective, they go to great lengths in their environments and could be hacked into just as easily as a commercial environment and so, on the whole, we see that issue fading.”

“With clients we have various measures we can and can’t talk about in terms of the security we put in place, due to data protection, but security concerns haven’t devalued Cloud moving forward.”

The Network Management System 2.3 enables utilities to aggregate data from various network assets into a single interface with more detailed visibility into network operations. For the first time, utilities have network asset data – two-way distributed energy resource (DER) data, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) data, distribution management system (DMS) data and outage management system (OMS) data – all in a single interface for more meaningful analysis and decision making.

The enhanced system gives utility operators the visibility they need to respond to changing network conditions – whether that’s a flurry of new electric vehicles in a neighbourhood and the need to resize transformers, or responding faster during a large storm outage or gas leak.

Waters says the efficiencies associated with the Cloud are well known and the advantages many.

“The efficiencies gained by using Cloud mean processes can be done quickly and economically compared to going off-site yourself, and is much easier to integrate with other applications and also easy to keep up to date for you.

“Our platform is what we call a network management system. The more common term is advanced distribution management system – a system you can use to manage all of your distributed energy environment be it electric, gas or water -and understand how it can be done more efficiently for the customer.”

“Today, the concern is the utility industry always operated a one-way system where power from a plant radiated out to homes – now energy can be put on the network just about anywhere.Portable electrics, wind energy and diesel generation are part of that picture. The overall goal of utilities around the world has been safe, reliable, affordable energy for years, and now they must continue to do that in a more complex environment while still operating efficiently and safely.”

The 2.3 release facilitates all these different inputs into the system, be it customer home generation, home devices, appliances – all part of the larger distribution system.

“Once it was a meter but now it’s way beyond a meter,” says Waters. “With this technology you can integrate all these devices across the network in one single interface – a dashboard that looks across the distribution network to assess how it is behaving, where it is having congestion, and where you have to shift the load around in order to continue to operate reliably.

“It is revolutionary, and we are the only one in the industry so far to bring all these elements into play and tie in with what you think of as the customer-centric grid. All of the elements are being operated around the customer, to provide safe, reliable services, advise them on better use of energy, help them control their energy within their home. Then when we have difficulties on the network we can ask them to shed load for temporary times to maintain reliability of the network all the time.”

Waters describes it as “a manifestation of the Internet of Things: all these intelligent devices sending data, being able to receive data and receive control information, and that creates a scalability issue of considerable magnitude.

“The good news is we understand that and the design of it, and we have already proven how scalable this can be beyond any limitations that have been known in the past. Something else to note is that all of this data needs to be analyzed. We have engines that take this data and analyze it and plan the results into each of the applications – resulting in better changes and controls to make the system work better and provide more efficiency for the customer.”

That growth of distributed energy and increasing demand by customers is forcing change, and many utilities are looking seriously at Cloud technology as a solution.

Waters again points out previous experiences with the banking and retail sectors in the demand by customers for more and better services, for example the ability to manage finances online 24/7, as well as proactive recommendations offering products or advice on better managing finances.

Oracle, as a large corporation with different commercial verticals, has then a lot of capability in what it can deliver for utilities, as it already has a proven pedigree in other sectors. The same technology that works for those can be deployed once again.

“Customers are demanding similar from the utility sector, and it’s a more complex environment to take care of now – that’s why they are so interested in this technology. The utility industry is just starting to catch up.”

But what are the unique complexities in rolling out this technology to this particular field?

“They have immediate needs – distributed energy and high customer demand is already upon them. It typically takes extended periods of time for the utility industry to transition their technology. I came from the utility industry and it’s not unusual to have technology on place for 20-plus years and we’d be making transitions that would take years to get in place. Now that needs to be done at a more accelerated rate, and that is why the Cloud is becoming so relevant. It is a means to get your technology in place much more rapidly than in the past, and frankly much more economically. That is the issue and Cloud addresses the issue for the utility sector quite rapidly.

“The regulators in the US utility sector have a say in whether your technology and innovations are to be approved. They are now on board with, and understand the value of, the Cloud and how it helps the industry move forward, and that means the removal of a major barrier for the industry.”

Having previously worked in a utility, Waters is keenly aware of the culture of slower change.

“The industry is starting to move – it is by very nature a monopoly and not the fastest moving of all the industries out there. I can’t estimate how long the transition will take – it depends how great the customer pressure is to do the change, as well as how much distributed energy there actually is in a given geographical area.”

As for the 30 per cent of those surveyed who weren’t quite on board with Cloud yet? Waters says that most are considering it, rather than being actively opposed to it.

“The build will happen as success stories become well known. Typically, once the early adopters get out there and have some success, it promotes a rapid transition.”

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