The Infosys Utilities Blog seeks to discuss and answer the industry’s burning Smart Grid questions through the commentary of the industry’s leading Smart Grid and Sustainability experts. This blogging community offers a rich source of fresh new ideas on the planning, design and implementation of solutions for the utility industry of tomorrow.


April 26, 2019

Utility Regulation: some considerations for the future

Utility regulation is generally complex, no matter where in the world it exists. By nature utilities tend to be a monopoly in the areas they serve, as there is generally only one utility connection of each type (water, electricity, gas, telecom) serving a property. Governments are rightly concerned that customers receive good service and value for money, however does the regulation need to be complex, and are there issues that are not being addressed through regulation?
Utility regulation is commonly split into two areas, the first being customer service. Various qualitative and quantative measure are used here. For quantative measures, time of response to queries, and the avoidance of repeat queries, are generally used. Qualitative measures are based on some form of structured survey of customers who have contacted the utility. Companies are then ranked against each other, and in some cases these rankings used as incentive mechanisms (i.e. the top ranked gains incentives, the bottom ranked loses incentives).
The second area is investment. This covers new or replacement assets (capital expenditure, or CAPEX), and maintenance of existing assets (operational expenditure, or OPEX). Sometimes these are combined in net present value (NPV) or similar calculations to give 'benefit over time' values (total expenditure, or TOTEX). Recently there has been a focus on base operating expenditure (or BOTEX), however this is really a subset of OPEX. Regulators ask utilities to prepare business plans for future investment over a period, scaling risks (e.g. asset failures), issues (e.g. population growth, climate change) and opportunities (e.g. improved quality) against expenditure options. After some discussion between regulators, the utility, customer bodies, other regulators and government (local and/or national), a business plan is agreed for the particular period. The utility is then measured against this plan by the regulator.
However is this overly complex? Whilst the customer measures are simple, in reality most customers regard a utility as a 'fit and forget' service. As long as clean water comes out of the taps, the toilets flush, the lights come on and the gas flows, then they are happy, subject to them paying what they regard as a fair price. The prime focus should therefore be on providing a reliable and safe service. Reliability of service forms part of regulation in some cases, but not all. In terms of investment, the main factors that affect cost are the distance to provide the service and the number of units provided. So for each customer, the more units provided and the further this has to travel, the more that service will cost. There is therefore a curve that can be drawn against units and distance per customer, with companies below the average curve performing more efficiently.
All of the above mechanisms do miss a key issue, and that is ageing assets, an area largely not addressed by current regulation. Many utility assets are old, and replacement cycles very long. For example there are electricity cables over 75 years old, and water mains and sewers over 150 years old. Current replacement rates mean that water mains would only be totally replaced after 150-200 years, and sewers 400-600 years. The replacement cycles for electricity and gas are similarly long, with transformers often only replaced after 80 years. Are such timescales realistic, or are we building up problems for the future? A good measure for any utility would therefore be the 'residual life of assets'. Across their asset base this 'residual', or time before failure, should at least be maintained, or ideally improved, so that burden is not placed on future generations. However more research is needed on rate and probability of failure, so realistic asset life for each type of asset can be determined. There has been some work in this area (such as condition based risk management and pipeline integrity management), and modern tools such as AI and Computer Vision may be a great help in such research and analysis.
So is current regulation fit for the future? I would argue that we need to both simplify measures with regard to customer service and investment, as well as building new measures to ensure that the utility is looking after their assets for future generations. We need to address these issues very soon, otherwise we may find that we are increasingly chasing asset failures. Fixing things before they break is generally much cheaper, and avoids a lot of pain for us all.

January 28, 2018

Managing Smart Electric Meters- Things to Consider

The utility industry has been witnessing an immense rise of smart electric meters Implementation across the globe. With the digital revolution setting in, there has been an increasing move towards enabling advanced metering infrastructure(AMI) for effectively managing meter data and operations. The ability to enhance grid reliability, effectively manage peak loads and passing the control of usage back to the end customers have all catalyzed this trend. The envisioned benefits of smart meters to the Industry are many, but for me as an asset management consultant it gets me thinking- What's in store for me?

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March 14, 2017

The Security trap

Security in IT is very important. Unauthorised access to confidential information can cause major disruption to companies, and to individuals lives. Some disruption can have life changing impacts to finance and reputation. Even 'lesser' security issues, such as viruses, can cause massive damage to company systems. Breaches to Operational Technology (OT) systems (such as SCADA) in utilities could cause countrywide failures, and put lives at risk. IT security is therefore quite rightly taken very seriously by governments, organisations and individuals.

However IT security is just one amongst the many risks we all face on a daily basis. Even a major breach of a utility OT system would not have the impact of an atomic bomb, and yet the world managed to increase overall wealth, and made great strides to reduce poverty, throughout the Cold War, under the threat of mutually assured destruction. IT security is therefore just another risk that we all have to manage.

Unfortunately in too many organisations IT security is used as a reason not to implement technological improvements. For example, video conferencing between computers, and even mobile devices, is something many of us use regularly, however video conferencing between organisations is very rare, generally because of 'IT security' concerns. Sharing of information is frequently blocked, and yet shared information often increases knowledge and opportunity for all of the participating organisations. For example, Transport for London (TfL) made most of the information for its transport systems (e.g. timetables) publically available: there are now a plethora of 'apps' to help travellers plan their journeys, all of which have been produced at no expense to TfL, and increase customer satisfaction.

I believe it is a duty of those of us in the IT world to ensure that IT security is managed appropriately, and not used as an excuse to block the business and personal benefits that our innovative technology can bring. Like any other risk it should be managed appropriately and balanced against the benefits. We cannot let the few who would wish to take advantage of us through IT security breaches constrain our future.

March 3, 2017

The Asset Management Journey - into Adaptive

For utilities, traditionally most asset management was based on cycles of planned maintenance, interrupted by many occurrences of reactive work. The planned maintenance was generally based historic norms, often with little feedback of benefit. With the advent of asset management systems, both IT (e.g. EAM/WAM) and Process (e.g. PAS55, now ISO 55000), work became more planned, and was more based on benefit, drawing particularly on asset risk and criticality. Such changes made major improvements in efficiency, with reductions of reactive work from 70% to 30% not uncommon. However planned work was, and in many cases still is, based on expectations of asset lifecycle performance, and not on actual asset feedback. Whilst such proactive strategies reduced service impacts, it led to higher levels of planned maintenance than necessary to ensure optimum asset life.

Over the last 20 years industries have increasingly turned to predictive methodologies, using sensors and instrumentation, coupled with appropriate analytic software, to predict and prevent asset failure though understanding trends. For example, a large transmission operator uses transformer load measured against ambient and internal temperature. A band range of 'normal' internal temperature against load and ambient temperature is mapped, and the system flags when internal temperature is outside of this range, so that checks can be made before any failure. Increasingly such tools are using machine learning which further helps to predict 'normal' asset behaviour. Asset management has therefore moved from Reactive through Proactive to Predictive.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools, such as Infosys NIA, are now starting to be used in asset management. These new methodologies use the AI engine to collate, compare, analyse, and highlight risks and opportunities. The tools can use structured and unstructured data, static and real time, and have the ability to take data from disparate sources. The systems will increasingly refine understanding of asset behaviour based on multiple inputs, such as sensors/instrumentation, third party data (weather), social media feeds, and impacts flagged by external, but publically available, sources. The tools will then be able to advise courses of action based on current events. They could also then be used to model possible scenarios, and advise actions and impacts based on their understanding of inputs against outputs (stochastic modelling +). Such tools will enable an organisation to continuously adapt its asset management strategies and implementation to current and future events.

I call this Adaptive Asset Management.

April 2, 2015

The Utilities Data Dilemma

Increasingly utilities are being directed to big data, and all the benefits that appears to offer. However such calls miss a fundamental issue, in that asset data is an expensive element for utilities, both to obtain and to maintain. Most utility physical assets are geographically widely spaced, sometimes in locations difficult to access. Costs can be quite high, for example a manhole survey can average >$100. The EPA estimates 12 million municipal manholes in the US, so a 5% validation survey would cost circa $60 million! Surveys can also have complex health and safety risks that need to be managed. For these reasons asset data is often limited, and of dubious quality. Sensors and instrumentation are improving, being both cheaper to install, run and maintain, and more robust, nonetheless they are still relatively expensive items.

With asset data being limited, suspect, and costly to improve, and sensors and instrumentation expensive to deploy, smarter utilities are looking to make better use of the information they already hold. By using a combination of engineering knowledge coupled with effective analytics, trends can be mapped and normal asset behaviour determined. Where data is readily available such analysis is relatively simple, however where asset data is limited engineering knowledge and understanding can be used to define relationships between the seemingly unrelated data sets. The key is in understanding how data sources can be meaningfully linked.

Large Business Information systems may thus be of limited value to utilities in terms of managing their assets. Of more value is the effective linking of dispersed data sources, coupled with an effective, easily configurable analytics engine. Such tools have already been used to answer many asset related questions, such as the viability of rainwater harvesting in differing regions and climates. It is indeed possible to answer many of the asset related questions posed by utilities, even with the limited asset data many hold. Each question is however individual to the specific situation, so only those who can understand both the engineering and system elements will be able to successfully deliver beneficial results.

May 22, 2013

UK Parliament All Party Parliamentary Water Group Innovation event May 2013

Yesterday I went to the UK Government All Party Parliamentary Water Group evening meeting on securing sustainable water resources for the future. This short event was chaired by Nia Griffith, Member of Parliament for Llanelli, with talks by Dr Dan Osborn, NERC (National Environment Research Council) and RCUK (Research Councils UK) lead at Living with Environmental Change and Chris Phillips, Chief Marketing Officer, i2O Water.

Dr Osborn talked about the World Economic Forum identifying water supply crises as one of the largest global risks, thus with many new challenges and markets appearing: this from a global market of £500 billion, and about £120 trillion in assets. UK research bodies had budgets of £120 million in this area, with for example Councils spending £13 million on drought research.

Mr Phillips described the world wide success i2O were achieving with their innovative pressure management solution and their close links to research (they are based in Southampton Science Park). He felt that, if properly established, UK water industry competition could lead to a boost in research funding.

A number of interesting discussions were then held. A large number felt that the cyclic, and sometimes short term, nature of work in the UK water industry made innovation difficult for the supply chain, as with tight margins and fluctuating workloads such investment was not feasible. Many felt that the UK needed to increase innovation, and learn from other countries, however generally it was perceived that UK expertise was still valued. Others highlighted the achievements of SMEs in the world water market, indeed UK SMEs, as well as contractors and consultants, were quite successful in the other countries. One gap identified was that the UK was not always as successful in turning research into effective solutions for the market, and more government and industry support was needed in this area. The only negative note was when Nia Griffiths asked if anyone from the utility companies had any comments: no-one from a utility had attended the event!

The official event concluded promptly as Nia Griffiths had to vote, however informal discussion carried on for some time. Overall I found the event very helpful, and believe such meetings should be encouraged in the industry.

October 4, 2011

Compatible Units: Building blocks of Utility Design and Estimation

A Compatible Unit (CU) is a design Unit that represents the Material, Labor, External Services, Tools etc. required to perform a Standardized Unit of Work. An Example of this can be installing a Pad Mounted Transformer. To perform this Unit of Work we need the Labor and Materials to perform the required excavation and Install the Pad, Install the Transformer and elbows. The Compatible Units are used as Building blocks to develop Utility design and estimates.

CU Ownership: The compatible Units creation and Maintenance is generally owned by the Standards departments of the Utilities. A Utility Construction / Maintenance standard may be created or modified depending on the technology advancements, changes in national electrical construction changes and the standards department decision to adopt the new technology and standards.  If a Utility decides to use a fiber glass cross arm instead of a wooden cross arm, the relevant construction standard is modified and required modifications are made to the Compatible Units Material and Labor.

Benefits of Compatible Units based Design and Estimation:

  • Enforcement of Construction and Maintenance Standards 
  • Seamless Integration of Design, Estimation, Mapping, Material Management and accounting processes (Discussed in next blog on this topic)
  • Consistency of Design and estimates irrespective of who performs the task
  • Defendability of the estimates. Customers pay the utilities for the new construction depending on the estimates and hence high level of Defendability of estimates is required. CUs are created by performing time studies, technology and cost assessments. As CUs are defendable, the estimates created using the CUs are defendable
  • Reduction in Inventory costs (Biggest advantage of implementing standards)
  • Reduction in wasted field trips due to missing material or tools (CU readily provides the list of all the required tools and Materials)
  • Minimum deviation between estimates and actuals (Huge Deviations can be investigated and required corrections made to the Work Processes or CUs)
  • Scope for continuous improvement (Feedback from Field crews and Periodic Audit helps in identification and rectification of Issues with individual compatible units)

Levels of Compatible Units
Multiple Levels of Compatible Units can be created. The existing Packages support up to nine levels of compatible units. The levels of Compatible Units can be better explained by the following example.

Level 1 CUs: Pole, Cross Arm, Transformer, Arrester
Level 2 CUs: Pole with Cross Arm, Transformer with Arrester
Level 3 CUs: Transformer with an Arrester Mounted on a Pole with a Cross Arm.

As the level of the CUs increases, the number of Possible Combinations increases. How? It is suggested that only the most often used combinations are created as higher level CUs. Otherwise the number of CUs becomes quite unmanageable. 
Note: Transmission and Distribution Utilities generally do not use more than 3 levels of CUs.

What CU Number is the right Number?
The Number of Compatible Units a Transmission and Distribution Utility manages may vary from a few thousands to tens of Thousands. Striking a balance between limiting CU count and supporting requests from designers for new creation of new CUs is a challenge. One way to contain the number of CUs managed by a utility is to create the CU Library afresh during upgrades and new implementations. In this approach, the utility starts with a minimum number of must have CUs and keeps adding newer ones as requested by Designers and Crews only after thorough analysis. Another approach is migrating all the CUs and marking a few as Preferred CUs. Both the approaches have their own pros and cons. Which approach do you prefer?

In my later blogs on Compatible Units, I will be discussing:

  • How the CUs integrate Design, Estimation, Mapping, Material Management and Unitization processes?
  • What should be the system of record for the CUs?  Which Application (Design, Estimation, GIS etc.) has what part of the CU? 
  • Why is "CU based design and estimation" even more relevant for the smart grid implementations?

September 28, 2011

Redefining "Smart Grid"

Smart grid is a term that has been incessantly bandied around for more than 5 years. The origins of this abundantly used term date to at least 2005, when the article "Toward A Smart Grid", authored by S. Massoud Amin and Bruce F. Wollenberg appeared in the September/October issue of IEEE P&E Magazine. Since then, every consultant, operations technologist and information technologist has been slinging around this word with relentless fervor, ad nauseam.

337_1.jpgAs we pass the fifth anniversary, an anniversary traditionally marked with gifts of silver or wood, we will instead explore redefining this term for a new era of smart grid. There are five main points of the re-defined smart grid, unheralded in the first iteration.

Shift from smart meter to smart grid, the enablement of the microgrid

  • The original envisioning of smart grid included a costly overhaul of infrastructure, digital enablement of existing assets and incorporation of new technology. After the costly investment into AMI, the push for infrastructure has slowed due to cost recovery. The focus on end-to-end technology enablement has lead to limited microgrids. The vision of smart grid will take the form of localized generation, energy storage and loads that are better facilitated and returns measured.

Growth of universal solutions and mid-market

  • The major investor owned utilities (and select visionary smaller utilities) paved the way with regard to smart grid rollouts and pilots. These utilities created the business case and have showcased both the upside and pitfalls of smart grid. Now armed with knowledge, smaller municipalities, co-ops and mid-market utilities will deploy scaled pilots to provide benefits across the majority of the market. With the growth of this market, there will be a demand for scalable technology solutions with limited capital investment that can be spread across a smaller rate paying population.

Importance of secure communication infrastructure

  • Again the most important aspect of the utilities landscape is providing reliable power. This reliability is hinged on not only providing service but also providing reliability through security at the device, home area network and back-haul network. As smaller and mid-market utilities, as well as larger investor owned utilities, face these challenges a large portion of the next stage of smart grid will focus on compliance and strength.

Responsibility of the full spectrum of premises as opposed to the home

  • The first vision of smart grid was sold as a consumer enablement. Realistically, the future of smart grid focuses on the commercial customer as opposed to the home. Management of the home utility network has limited returns while commercial consumption not only creates returns that hit the P/L but can create focused opportunities for utilities to focus on grid health and load management. Demand response has already created

Simplifying operations management

  • Prior to the recent technology push, operations professionals relied on tried and true practices that spanned nearly 100 years. With the availability of sensor arrays, load management tools, outage management software and digitized assets at the premise level, operations professionals are bombarded by complicated interfaces and valuable information. For any of these professionals to do their job, they require integrated, real-time dashboards to drive real-time business decisions. The future of distribution automation and the self-healing network relies on real-time decision making.

The future of smart grid looks but bright, but is hinged on significantly different values than the smart grid of 2005.

March 18, 2011

GIS as an imperative for a smart Grid

Geographic Information System (GIS) serves two critical purposes beyond what an enterprise asset management (EAM) tool can provide. These two are: spatial location and network connectivity. Whereas EAM owns the physical characteristics of an asset, the needs of a Smart Grid can only be met when GIS and EAM sync together.

From an automation perspective, EMS, DMS, OMS or Substation SCADA can subscribe to the network connectivity built within a GIS. A single spatial data model could form the backbone for managing the operations of the entire grid. GIS typically would be the repository of the "as-built". Real time changes brought about by day-to-day operations shall remain within the smart systems meant for automation until they become permanent changes or as-built.

Implementing this backbone of information flow goes beyond the T&D operations into Customer Service (CS) and Power Procurement (PP). A customer service representative who receives a call from a customer on an individual outage can in real-time view the network issue that caused the outage on a map. Also hovering over the issue on the map the representative can view EAM data describing the work-order with status and expected time of completion.

PP can leverage the combination of GIS and EMS to find the capacity margins of each Transmission circuit for monthly, daily or hourly power scheduling. GIS will have the as-built capacity information for each transmission line and EMS would supplement this with the current load and available margins.

GIS can tie all protection devices - transducers, measuring devices, control circuitry and relays to their geographic location in a substation. Critical equipment drawings and inspection videos could be stored or hyperlinked against the asset representation on a map.

This list can go on, but the message that I'd like to convey is that GIS-EAM together become a complete repository of asset information and have a foundational role to play in building the smart grid information infrastructure.

The following picture was part of a paper-presentation we did at DistribuTECH conference in 2009. It visually depicts the value-impact of GIS across the utility value chain:


December 28, 2010

Squeezing Asset Performance!

"Squeezing asset performance" is what a ratepayer seeks.
An avoided capital investment, whether it is in Power Plants, Transmission Lines, Substations, Distribution Assets or Meters, keeps the electricity rates stable.

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December 23, 2010

Smart Meter (Device) Asset Management


Today, I want to talk about Asset Management and why meter asset management needs to evolve from how legacy meters have been managed over the years by utilities. I will talk about smart meters in this blog but the discussion is equally valid for any smart device.


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September 30, 2010

Work and Asset Management in a Smart Grid

"Asset" in essence is immortal! It takes life when commissioned and never dies but gets replaced with a new one. Throughout its physical existence (Life!) it needs monitoring and maintenance which is termed as Work! (Work Orders may be). "Assets" take birth for the first time on a Planner's desk. While designing for load growth or system modernization, a Planner designs a network using appropriate components that meet the engineering, demographical, topological and various other standards. This as-designed network when becomes as-built, gets capitalized as "Assets" and the finance department starts depreciating it for the rest of its life. So what has changed over the hundred years starting with when T.A Edison designed and commisioned electrical networks and what beholds for these immortals in the near future?

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