IT integration is becoming increasingly important for the economics of utilities and in some areas, even becomes the key factor for a profitable and secure network operations business.

Ralf Spanheimer, Siemens PTD, Germany

The statement “There is nothing as stable as change” effectively describes the situation of most utilities today. While their primary focus remains the same, market and environmental changes – such as competition, liberalization, mergers and acquisitions – are occurring. These dynamic forces push utilities to maximize productivity and profit in order to remain competitive, without sacrificing reliability. One method of achieving this is by automating energy networks and business processes and many companies are successfully managing this by focusing their asset investments on industrial standards like the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) in order to limit as much as possible the number of proprietary solutions.

Figure 1. The utility ‘strategic triangle’ illustrates the sometimes conflicting demands that are the drivers behind IT integration
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Within liberalized markets another challenge also has to be faced. Utilities have to implement new regulatory rules which often result in a need to establish new data exchange processes to other companies and provide additional reporting structures. This increasing demand of information in the competitive environment demands innovative solutions and IT integration within operational applications is one important piece of the puzzle.

IT integration standards

Several years ago the standardization groups within the IEC started to provide guidelines to vendors and utilities which enable their IT applications to support a smooth IT integration. The resulting series of international standards – IEC 61970: Energy management system application programme interface (EMS-API) encompassing the Common Information Model (CIM) – are now becoming well established in the energy market. This integration concept differs quite a bit from the “peer to peer” approach which has been used in the past as it is driven by financial and organisational constraints. Almost all integration solutions have in common the aim to smooth and accelerate work processes, minimize operational costs and increase data quality. Additional standards like the International Standard IEC 61968: “System Interfaces for Distribution Management” are also being prepared in order to further support utilities in their integration efforts.

SCADA/DMS and GIS systems

SCADA/DMS applications are the building blocks for the kernel infrastructure of the energy network’s operation, including monitoring and controlling the network, co-ordinating and documenting field work and such like. As a repository for most real-time information regarding the network state, they are also an essential and critical operational part of the utility’s IT environment. There is always a demand to share part of this real-time information with other utility departments.

However, in the past, these applications were generally islanded from the office environment and from other applications, or interfaced through some very basic interconnections.

Today’s requirements regarding security and availability of the SCADA/DMS applications – fast response and availability higher than 99.9 per cent with designed redundancy and multi-level secured backup data – haven’t changed. And, due to the operational consequences, the requirements for the accuracy of stored data remain the highest. But these applications can now take advantage of the technology used in the office environment, including PCs running the Windows operating system, with improved communication capabilities and state-of-the-art user interfaces.

SCADA/DMS and GIS are complementary systems but a variety of benefits can flow from their integration
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Complementary to a SCADA/DMS, a utility’s Geographic Information System (GIS) supports different business processes in several departments of the company, including for example supporting the work planning and the fault location process within the operational team and in the planning department supporting the network extension tasks, while for the asset management team it supports the planning of maintenance work. One characteristic of a GIS is the huge amount of data and the origins of that data from different sources. Some data is utility owned, especially the network documentation while other data can be provided by external suppliers like the base maps. Compared to a SCADA/DMS, the level of detail within the GIS is much higher, the number of employees using this GIS data is also high, and data updates are very common, mostly daily in working hours. However, the GIS data represents the last known status of assets, which is not necessary equivalent to the real situation in the field, and the quality of documentation of network assets is in most cases good but not perfect. Another common issue is the completeness of documentation. Documentation in a GIS is mostly structured by area not by network topology which is often an issue for applications using network topology. Another common issue is the updating process of data. Updated data is typically not available on the same day the real implementation in the field has happened. Conversely, the major strength of a GIS is the ease of use to import different kinds of data and its abilities to connect to other data sources. This makes GIS a powerful tool to analyse data from different viewpoints and support management decisions.

Integration using CIM

SCADA/DMS – GIS integration is a method of picking the best of both worlds, ensuring rapid access to all relevant data for all departments using data from one of the two applications seamlessly. Also the integration has to ensure that data maintenance costs are kept at a minimum as are data errors and inconsistencies.

One key issue for integrating applications is that they are using the same “language” to identify the information they are exchanging. The standard Common Information Model of IEC 61970 brings an important aspect to the table as it covers a wide range of data from topology to asset attributes. For example, for a switching device the model records its normal position, the nominal voltage, the phases, the switching count, and so on. This SCADA/DMS information can be made unequivocally available to other applications. The network databases of SCADA/DMS applications are increasingly CIM-based and bring along criteria like high availability, data completeness and close-to-real-time network documentation. This can also become a major benefit for other departments should they gain access to this real-time data. However, looking into IT integration is not only a question of getting access to data, in addition technical, usability and other work process driven questions have to be answered. Who is the data master for each data set? Where to add and edit data? Where has the data been exchanged to? How to ensure that integration will reduce the overall maintenance IT costs?

Figure 2. A comparison of data between the SCADA/DMS and GIS systems showing the same location
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The CIM standard facilitates the possibility of export of the SCADA/DMS data to a GIS and the GIS itself then adds all its advantages regarding usability and numbers of users to it. SCADA/DMS becomes the master application for network data and CIM is the access model to the real-time data. Using this approach the cost-intensive and error-prone interfacing between the GIS and the SCADA/DMS can be substantially improved and as a result the user’s work processes see some significant enhancement, especially in the trustworthiness, accuracy and prompt availability of data.

Applications of integration

Realizing the integration of network models via CIM opens the possibility of a wide range of further levels of integration. The most important one for operators is the viewing level integration. The most requested integrations are kinds of screen call-up functionalities and an almost seamless Screen-Call-up functionality from a SCADA/DMS to GIS and vice versa can be easily implemented once a CIM-based integration system is in place. For operational staff this will manifest itself as a major advantage because it is one of the most commonly requested functionalities in daily operational use. Further integration steps, for example synchronized colouring and so on, can be extended step by step.

The main advantages of SCADA/DMS – GIS integration are improved network operation efficiency, reduced cost of data management, more consistent asset information distribution among the various users and finally, and perhaps most importantly, better end user services. To support an efficient network management process the SCADA/DMS on one side and GIS on the other side have to interact seamlessly with each other. Systems available today offer many integration levels to support operational staff in taking the right decisions and reacting quickly while international standards build the basis for a wide range of integration solutions.

The dream, to have all relevant system information available at a finger tip, is close to becoming true.