Extracting real value from utilities data requires the development of a new kind of operation, one that is data-driven, creating a system that can react to the way networks are actually operating as distinct from the way they were expected to operate. Dan Beasley*, Cyient Ltd, East Hartford, Connecticut, USA
Data has become one of the most valuable currencies of modern times and organisations worldwide are beginning to realise the benefits of investing in its collection and analysis. One of data’s most common uses is in performance monitoring – a practice that has become commonplace across various industries, particularly in the evaluation of connected systems. Utility companies for instance, collect huge volumes of data when assessing the performance of a network, which is then analysed to provide insights into efficiency across the grid.
But extracting real value from utility data requires the development of a ‘data-driven’ operation. By modifying the ‘data ecosystem’ – processes, systems and organisations – utilities are able to create an ‘as-operated’ paradigm as opposed to an ‘as-designed’ model.
Performance monitoring produces reams of current and historical data collected from across the network that can be used to inform both proactive and reactive decisions. The data profile has changed over the years, as the purpose of collection has evolved. Initially, data was collected solely to record when and where an asset was placed in service. Now utilities seek a more temporal understanding of the ‘condition’ of each asset as it operates. But effecting this transformation isn’t simple. To do so, utilities must be able to show how their networks perform according to how they are operated, as well as how they were designed. While both perspectives are essential, the need to align the two is critical. This can be a complex operation, but by placing big data at the heart of the strategy, it has the potential to revolutionise the way that utility companies operate.
Big data – how to make it bigger and better
Today’s complex utility service marketplace and unforgiving regulatory environment means the value of big data insights is increasing rapidly, forcing utilities to become data-driven organisations. The popularity of ‘big data’ as a buzzword has created the false impression that utilities have overcome the technical, procedural and organisational constraints. But utilities generate data through a variety of different systems, which can be complicated to dissect. This makes it difficult to derive historical, real-time and predictive performance monitoring insights.
Utilities should therfore be looking to optimise the data ecosystem, generating a continuous, automated lifecycle. This requires a change in their physical processes, and very importantly, a change in mindset. It can be difficult to establish a truly data-driven organisation unless everyone involved works from an ‘as-operated’ mindset.
The evolution of data-driven operations
Perhaps the most crucial change required is the understanding that data is an evolving asset. It is easy to be content with one’s existing use of data, and many organisations limit its application to existing internal processes and structures. But data-driven utilities have shown that by placing data at the centre of the organisation, they can improve performance in challenging areas such as operational costs, grid control, response to problems, and customer service. By aligning data with key business objectives, network operators are afforded the right information at the right time, enabling a more effective business response.
Secondly, utilities need to acknowledge that systems should be specifically designed to enable ‘as-operated’ data to be generated. The data ecosystem should allow them to move their existing operations and processes away from ‘as-designed’ towards an ‘as- operated’ focus. Then the data produced reflects the performance
of the grid as it’s operated, rather than according to its design. This is critical given the constant evolution of grids and the commercial impact of distributed energy resources. It means utilities can make greater use of interoperability and advanced utilisation techniques.
Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the shift in priorities required, from the traditional model, where information is used to supplement existing business processes, to a holistic view powered by as-operated data in which business objectives, as well as inputs and outputs, are tailored to contribute towards it.
An as-operated paradigm enables smart investments
The hierarchical structure of large utility operations makes it difficult to adjust existing as-operated and as-designed data, processes and technology models (the data ecosystem), so the environmental and system changes that occur within networks are often missed. But for smart grids the benefits of integrating the data are two-fold.
Firstly, moving toward smart, two-way interoperability provides a much stronger basis from which to draw operational, financial or customer service insights. When as-operated and as-built models work in harmony, the data can be more effectively applied, utilised, and accelerated within core utility systems. In turn, this enables utilities to expand the breadth and depth of operational information they are supplied with, and in doing so permits them to continue to advance towards operating a ‘smarter grid’. The process isn’t necessarily straightforward – it needs utilities’ data systems to accurately model the state of the physical network, and may require significant investment, as well as the implementation of changed management techniques. Undoubtedly, it is worth it – it will allow them to alter their technical and organisational models and move away from their legacy, as-built purposes to serve a new purpose. The information produced by smart grid systems can of course be used to advantage. When supported by performance-based insights, it can identify trends and patterns and turn that insight into action.
The ‘Big data’ concept has been with us for many years, and many companies are well ahead with plans to derive performance insights and optimisations within their networks, particularly in relation to smart grids. But traditional hierarchical structures and isolated data or system investments aren’t sufficient to unlock true value. It is vital that data is always available – but it is the alignment of process, systems and organisation, harnessing the data ecosystem, that is of utmost importance. In order to derive operational performance insights, enriched, relevant data must be mined, visualised and deployed in a manner that defines a utility as a ‘smart grid operator’. Utilities with networks that can be viewed not only as built, but also as operated may truly define themselves as data-driven.
*Dan Beasley is the Global Industry Lead for Utilities at networking and operations firm Cyient Ltd