This past week, the UK government signalled its intent to commit to a more intelligent energy system.

Business secretary Greg Clark said, “Upgrading our energy system to make sure it is fit for the future is a key part of our Industrial Strategy. A smarter energy system will create opportunities to reduce energy costs, increase productivity and put UK businesses in a leading position to export smart energy technology and services to the rest of the world.”

Oracle is at the heart of the business of enabling smarter utilities worldwide. Martin Dunlea, Utilities Industry Strategy, EMEA at Oracle Utilities spoke to Power Engineering International about the challenges involved, and gains within reach for consumers, power utilities, grid developers and governments, by choosing a more data-driven approach.Martin Dunlea of Oracle

Power Engineering International (PEI): How is smart grid deployment going in Europe? In the context of its importance to a more efficient, cleaner system, what’s holding it back?

Martin Dunlea (MD): “In broad terms most people are of the opinion that the overall deployment is much slower than first anticipated. Nonetheless, I think the merits around smart meters and their contributory role to the smart grid is well understood.”

“So although we have seen an initial slow penetration, the general consensus for most countries, particularly those who are enabling the flow of information between customers and energy providers  in competitive energy markets,  is they will get there  eventually.”

“It’s interesting in the context of smart grid, that people generally start with the default position of deploying smart meters. While incredibly important to the overall smart grid, they are one element of what is essentially a whole range of solutions, new technologies, automations and analytics coming together to evolve and create the smart grid.”

“Smart meters are important in terms of the relationship between the utilities and customers and more recently the ability to better visualise how voltage is being distributed throughout the network.
PEI: How is Oracle helping utilities deliver the smarter system, notwithstanding delays to roll-out?

MD: The focus form Oracle’s perspective, is about working with utilities and regulatory bodies to deliver on the benefits of smart meters. Our solutions are very much aligned around helping utilities in deployment, management of data and the use of that data to transform the relationship between customers and utilities and driving an overall better, more intuitive business model.  The focus is around helping to innovate and build new business opportunities.”

“In terms of the deployment rate there are many factors to consider. Cost is an important consideration-the new meters are of a different makeup compared to  electromechanical meters. There is significant cost in installation and disruptive cost associated with those.”

“Standards are another issue. There are ongoing discussions in relation to the safety and security standards with smart meters. In that regard, they suffer from many of the challenges that emerging technologies are suffering,.

“The  evidence is there, however., if you look at countries like the UK and Ireland, which had early proof of concepts, there is confidence in smart grid technology for many years now, even if there is slowness in where most people expected the industry at large to be at this stage.”

PEI: Smart meters have come in for some negative publicity in recent times, in terms of inaccurate readings, in particular. There was one Dutch study earlier this year which suggested a prolific problem. Is this being exaggerated and how damaging could it be to public perception?

MD: “I genuinely believe that the smart meters are no more inaccurate than the traditional electromechanical meters still in place in many countries today. Perhaps it is the profile they are enjoying in the online and printed media that has highlighted some of these issues but I do not believe that there are any higher number of inaccuracies compared to mechanical meters.”

“What I would say though, is that the technologies are now in place to allow utilities to understand discrepancies in smart meters. The communication capabilities are in place to evaluate what the meter reads are telling you in relation to bad reads, misinformation, tampering, all of those issues. So the technologies that have evolved alongside make it far more probable that utilities are in a positon to manage and take corrective action.”

“That’s a huge step forward and improvement in terms of how utilities manage their business in being able to stand over the consistency and accuracy of the meter reads on behalf of the customers.”

PEI: In the UK in particular are you finding it easy to work with energy suppliers in what is such a big system transformation? The proliferation of distributed energy resources is another factor. How are they adapting?

MD: “You have touched on t two of the business drivers that are responsible for a lot of the changes. In the UK,  where suppliers are  responsible for the smart meter deployment, retailers understand the benefits that smart meters can provide in terms of building two way communications between themselves and customers, helping to improve the overall accuracy and overall understanding of energy consumption and associated bills. “In general, the evidence we have is that they understand the benefits and challenges and are up to the challenge of revolutionising the way energy is managed.”

“Interestingly, most people are now also beginning to realise that as the overall penetration of renewables, and particularly distributed energy resources at the edge of the grid, continues,
then Smart meters and ultimately smart grid are an important part of how you help manage changes to the traditional business models and all the challenges in dealing with intermittency load and large amounts of distributed energy.”

PEI: Distributed energy is growing at a fierce pace but it’s been evident that it has been going that way for quite a while now. Have grid operators been slow to invest in what they need to do to accommodate all that energy on the periphery?

MD: “It depends. What I mean is there are certain markets we are working in where the role of the DNO or DSO is to transform the traditional business while taking on new roles, such as managing DER. We have seen many examples of these moving at an accelerated pace.”

“When you are facing multiple challenges, as this industry is, around not just helping to drive competition and providing choice and improved service to customers, but driving changes around reducing dependency on traditional fossil fuels, driving efficiency, increasing renewable resources, reducing CO2 footprint, when all those challenges bubble up, they are realising that reaching out, embracing and understanding and integrating renewables as part of the new business model makes sense.”

“The evidence I see from talking  to the network operators is that they well understand the challenges. They understand the changes they need to make to their business models and in the years to come we will see a very different approach in terms of building platforms to meet future customer expectation, building a more efficient marketplace that takes into account the growth of renewables.”

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PEI: When dealing with a typical power utility client, what can Oracle Utilities tell them about improving bottom line as well as reducing emissions?

MD: “There is a direct correlation for sure between the evolution of smart meters and the evolution of smart grid. With the growth and use of technologies and improvements to bottom line and efficiency, we see lots of example where smart grid and associated technologies are driving efficiencies in the overall operation of the network, helping distribution companies build quicker restoration times after outages, reducing overall operation costs within operations and meeting the expectations  of customers.”

“ Oracle Utilities refers to that as driving operating excellence throughout the organisation. Its efficiencies, cost reduction and better management and understanding of resources and assets.”

“We tend to focus on key business solutions – analytics, network management systems, customer technologies – platforms for customer relationships and increasingly driving customer engagement and self-service solutions Oracle Utilities now supplies utilities with Cloud-based solutions that can help accommodate growth in data and volumes across the smart grid, particularly the growth in smart data.”

PEI: Two questions on the area of cyber-security. In recent times, we have seen a cyber-attack on the Ukrainian grid, as well as evidence last week of some rogue activity on the British system. How involved is Oracle in combatting this threat to both utilities and the overall grid infrastructure?

Also would the possibility of a dedicated national private fibre network for national grid use work as a means of combatting these attacks. The point being that a private network would not be connected to a public internet so there is less chance of a successful breach.

MD: A: “It is debatable whether the existence of a private network would provide any higher a level of security management. Utilities around the world are generally able to avail of a very secure service from their local telco or local network provider.”

“The challenge for utilities is going from being a closed proprietary system, to one relying increasingly more on standard platforms and applications as the smart grid evolves to essentially an IP-based network. Where solutions like SCADA and distribution management systems are increasingly relied upon, then that places challenges on the utilities who have to find ways to manage the communications in a secure way.”

“From Oracles perspective it’s about being able to work with utilities to address known or identifiable cyber security threats. We work with them around meeting the standards that have been put in place to adopt smart grid technologies to a more secure environment.”

“There are many examples Oracle can point to where we are using our technologies and products to work with federal and state regulatory bodies to identify how our products and solutions meet the standards demanded.”

“That can be making sure critical cyber assets reside away from your standard enterprise apps or looking at recovery plans in the event of a cyber security breach. We work with utilities to create a separation associated with the critical infrastructure, combining a series of solutions – access control, identity management controls and so on. It’s a combination of understanding the challenges, separation of the known risks and solutions from our portfolio to address the critical infrastructure threat.”

PEI: To gauge the scale of this threat, has Oracle invested more in technology, R&D and personnel in recent years in response than would have previously been the case?

MD: “Managing threats in a changing industry is not a utility specific industry challenge. Oracle addresses these threats across a while range of industry verticals – banking, retail, communications and  that means we are able to understand in very broad terms the nature and threat across multiple industries.”

“It’s a significant focus area for Oracle and if you look at industries as they adopt standard IP-based technology and control systems and take on more smart devices, the reality is this is going to be an ever-evolving challenge for companies.”


Oracle helping utilities to deal with a more complex environment