Every year, utilities are faced with the critical decision of where to invest capital. These decisions are guided by several factors, such as regulatory requirements, market conditions and business strategies. Given their magnitude, decisions are not made hastily. Careful consideration is given to the financial and operational prudence of large capital projects, such as power plants and new infrastructure.
The utility also makes sure that it has the resources to support the implementation and on-going operation of large projects. This discipline is necessary to do what is best for the utility, and ultimately, the customer. This same discipline is essential in assessing the use of smart grid technologies, such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), distribution automation (DA) and home area networks (HAN).
In the last several years, the ubiquitous coverage of the smart grid has sparked the interests of many utilities looking to modernize their infrastructures and find new ways to interact with their customers. Most recently, the excitement around smart grid initiatives has accelerated as a result of its inclusion in the U.S. government’s economic stimulus package. However, utilities must remain cautious as they evaluate these new technologies.
The current "rush" can result in a lack of structure around strategy and planning for smart grid improvements. As utilities embrace smart grid technologies, many are tempted to develop a vision and strategies in a hurried, reactionary fashion rather than taking a rigorous, structured approach to determine what technologies will deliver the most value to the utility and its customer base.
Unlike planning for other capital projects, planning for smart grid is not simply about filing a regulatory business case; it is planning a business case for transformation. It is about implementing the right mix of smart grid technologies that delivers the greatest direct (operational savings) and indirect (customer benefits, customer satisfaction, reliability) benefits for the utility. Additionally, proper planning and strategy identifies risks and considerations that facilitate implementation of new technologies. Finally, a structured approach considers the organization’s capacity to complete the project. Just as you wouldn’t approve the construction of a power plant without ensuring that you have the resources to complete it, you shouldn’t begin the smart grid journey without a clear sense of where you are going and how you are going to get there.
A methodical approach to defining a smart grid vision can be accomplished through leadership workshops that define a portfolio of strategic options and establish the criteria to analyze the portfolio’s value (both quantitative and qualitative). These sessions assess the various smart grid technologies to determine what unique mix (technologies and geographies) is the best fit to meet the utility’s objectives.
The key steps to defining a smart grid vision are:
- Define a decision framework;
- Develop strategic options;
- Analyze value; and
- Ratify strategy.
Ultimately, this approach results in a richer smart grid strategy and decision making process that is consistent with other large capital projects.
Define a Decision Framework
The first step toward defining a smart grid vision is to develop a decision making process to establish the emphasis and focus of the smart grid program. Are upfront capital costs the main concern, or is selecting mature and proven technologies more crucial? Some utilities may seek technologies that can be implemented quickly, while others may be more focused on a multi-year rollout of smart grid initiatives.
Identifying these crucial drivers and understanding their importance is achieved by creating a baseline decision framework to evaluate smart grid technologies. The framework should be shaped by project management, sponsorship and subject matter experts (SMEs) from all functional groups (e.g., transmission and distribution, meter services, billing, call center, human resources, finance and information technology) within the organization. This ensures that the initiative has executive buy-in and input from all groups affected by a smart grid implementation.
A good decision framework incorporates company strategic priorities and consists of both qualitative and quantitative measures. Qualitative factors include customer satisfaction, technology maturity and obsolescence, implementation risks and alignment with business priorities. Quantitative factors examine product and resource costs, and product benefits and savings.
It is also important to understand and compare functionality available to functionality needed. For example, a utility might be interested in implementing HAN capabilities, but may ultimately realize that DA will generate greater value. In the end, the decision framework lays the foundation for the evaluation of a utility’s smart grid portfolio.
Finally, a decision framework should consider and evaluate the program risks and the organization’s ability to successfully execute the project (e.g., timeline, skill set required, availability of resources, competing projects, technological obsolescence/ maturity).
Develop Strategic Options
Smart grid is not a "one size fits all" initiative. Rather than view smart grid as an "all or nothing" proposition, each utility should define its own customized solution. The specific strategy and technologies of a smart grid program is driven by the needs of the utility. For instance, utilities focused on improving grid reliability will emphasize DA technologies, while others more interested in reducing operational costs will emphasize an AMI approach.
Once a decision framework has been created, the utility should begin to assess the advantages and disadvantages of smart grid technologies using a summary scorecard (Figure 1).
These scorecards provide a comprehensive view of the technology and identify risks, dependencies, resource effort, key benefits and costs associated with the technology. Once complete, scorecards can be used to identify different mixtures, or portfolios, of smart grid technology options.
The advantage of assembling technologies into a portfolio is that it enables an enterprise-wide perspective of the program. The value for each stakeholder organization can be identified and evaluated. The integration of smart grid technologies is made more apparent.
When selecting a portfolio, there are a few key points to keep in mind. First, a smart grid portfolio doesn’t have to incorporate all available technologies, only the ones that coincide with the business strategy. Next, smart grid technologies don’t have to be implemented uniformly across the entire service territory. For instance, a utility could elect to utilize substation automation only at critical or less reliable substations, or choose to install AMI meters in jurisdictions/areas where meter reading cost is high.
Finally, timing of the smart grid rollout is critical. A utility doesn’t have to provide all of the functionality on day 1. Subsequent capability releases can be planned many years in the future.
One of the major obstacles to implementing a smart grid program is the lack of maturity in emerging smart grid technologies. Utilities can counter this through the use of interim solutions. An interim solution helps the utility to recognize smart grid benefits in a "manumatic" environment, combining manual business processes and a degree of process and system automation, with the goal to transition to more integration and automation.
Examples of interim solutions include:
- Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – If there is no regulatory structure for the use of interval data, a utility could initially use the technology for remote monthly register reads and remote connect/ disconnect with idea to transition to interval-based rates as they become required.
- Meter Data Management System (MDMS) – If interval data is not yet needed, the utility may be able to defer investment in an MDMS. At a later date, a new CIS system/CIS modifications could provide MDMS functionality.
- Wide Area Network (WAN) Communications Backhaul – A utility may start with a cellular backhaul and move to another technology (e.g., WiMax) as it evolves.
- Direct Load Control – Initially, a utility could use a technology independent of AMI (e.g., paging network) and then transition to load control through the AMI meter.
Incorporating interim solutions gives utilities additional flexibility in what technologies can be included in its smart grid portfolio. Once a closer analysis is given to the technology portfolio, utilities can determine if and where interim solutions should be considered.
Would a utility build a 2 GigaWatt power plant to satisfy a 100 MegaWatt demand? It’s safe to say most wouldn’t. The additional capacity of the plant does not justify the cost. Although this is an obvious example, it demonstrates that utilities have an existing decision process around large capital investments. In order to successfully define a smart grid strategy, utilities must find a way to transition this type of analysis to smart grid technologies. A qualitative and quantitative value analysis of smart grid portfolios will provide justification of which smart grid technologies to implement.
Qualitative review involves scoring the chosen technology portfolio(s) against the decision framework. This provides a sense of how the technologies match the utility’s risk profile, resource constraints and overall strategy. For instance, a utility may see that some technologies are cost-effective, but too risky to implement in the short-term. These factors are not captured in financial modeling and provide key information to aid in the transition from strategic planning to implementation.
Quantitative analysis assures cost effectiveness for smart grid technology portfolio(s) and is achieved through the use of a business case or financial model. This analysis factors in the various costs and benefits of the smart grid portfolio. For instance, a technology portfolio with AMI and DA would indicate significant costs for the purchase and deployment of new devices, but would calculate benefits on improved grid reliability and remote meter reading.
Figure 2 depicts an overview of a financial model that could be used for smart grid value analysis. As the cost-effectiveness of a particular technology portfolio is determined, the utility may find that the portfolio needs to be modified in order to achieve increased savings. For example, an advanced communications infrastructure to implement AMI alone may not be cost effective. However, if the same infrastructure was also used to enable DA and mobile dispatch it would become much more cost effective. The combination of financial data and qualitative options analysis will help the utility to determine the optimal mix of smart grid technologies to implement.
The selection of a smart grid portfolio and the associated value analysis is only the starting point on the journey to a smart grid; it simply puts the building blocks in place for the utility to transition into implementation planning. The final step in developing a smart grid strategy is to understand how the project will be executed. Utilities should begin implementation planning by asking the following key questions:
- What is the project scope?
- What are the key success factors?
- What is the timeline to complete the project?
- Which technologies do we implement first (priority/critical path)?
- What resources are going to do the work? What can be done with internal employees vs. consultants and contractors?
- What are the risks? How will we manage them?
- What are the key integration points?
- What are the competing priorities/projects?
- Are there regulatory constraints?
A final question leadership may want to ask is "What is the largest non-core project the company has ever undertaken?" and "Why was this project successful/ unsuccessful?" Considering this will allow the utility to consider lessons learned and better understand their capacity for change.
Once these questions have been answered, the utility is ready to begin a smart grid deployment roadmap. The purpose of this roadmap is to lay out the key initiatives over the project timeline, noting the key dependencies and integration points. At this point, it is crucial to transition the organization from a strategy focus to an implementation focus. Current project leadership/sponsorship and functional SMEs should not be released from the project, but rather retained to assist with implementation planning and execution in new roles within the utility’s smart grid organization.
For a variety of reasons, a utility may decide not to immediately begin its smart grid implementation once the vision and strategy have been defined. All is not lost as this analysis helps to identify the key drivers, benefits, risks and obstacles associated with the smart grid program. This can be used as a baseline for future analysis or planning once the utility is ready to continue its smart grid journey.
Implementing a smart grid strategy and plan is an enterprise-transforming endeavor. It may be one of the most pervasive programs a utility has ever attempted. It will impact most every energy delivery organization/function; from operations to customer service and from procurement to human resources. The information technology/operations technology boundary will be crossed many times. Appropriate evaluation of the options and alignment with the company’s strategic goals and challenges is perhaps the most critical step in the smart grid journey. Strategic decisions should be based on rigorous analysis of internal and external aspects, and not an industry trend.