Opportunity Ahead: The Aging Workforce

Conventional thinking has it that the utility industry’s aging workforce represents a critical problem demanding a call to arms. But is an aging workforce really just a human resources dilemma? Or can it be viewed more broadly as a window through which utilities can examine ways to foster positive change for the future of their organizations? When viewed in this light, the exit of a large cohort of skilled workers may represent the most significant opportunity a utility will ever confront – one that could fundamentally alter the way it does business and upgrades financial performance.

At most utilities, little or no opportunity exists for significant revenue growth (a situation that’s persisted for some time) at the same time that personnel-related expenses have continued to increase and squeeze profit margins. To achieve the annual earnings improvement targets of 10 to 15 percent that stakeholders have come to expect, utilities have had no alternative but to reduce ongoing operational expenses dramatically – and often that’s meant cutting staff.

But the days of dramatic expense cuts based on typical cost reduction strategies are all but over. With nearly a third of the industry eligible to retire today, further personnel cuts aren’t warranted. Utilities are now confronted with a unique opportunity to make business improvements to reduce future costs. One approach involves using innovative technology to:

  • Lessen headcount requirements and make better use of reduced staffs;
  • Capture the knowledge base of skilled workers before they depart the workforce;
  • Reduce the number of people required to carry out a task by improving data access and communications among operating units;
  • Emphasize availability and use of key skills (rather than number of personnel);
  • Create true “best practices” (rather than continue to rely on “status quo practices”); and
  • Develop a “digital organization” that excites and retains new hires.

The utilities that will be successful in the future – the high-performance utilities – won’t hire their way to success. After all, there will be fewer skilled workers available for hire; recruitment will remain costly; and ongoing personnel-related expenses will continue to escalate. Instead, the high-performance utility will institutionalize its key procedures and business processes (by capturing existing employee knowledge) and exploit documented best practices before employees fly out the door.

Forward-looking utilities must invest in strategic technology, using a variety of partner models to meet their requirements. Technology solutions that solve localized issues will not address the future. Solutions that are able to look at a utility horizontally – as an organization with many parts that need to perform as a single entity – will serve as an important means of dealing with the disappearing workforce.

WHAT ARE UTILITIES LOSING … AND GAINING?

The imminent loss of critical skills and knowledge base caused by an aging workforce approaching retirement represents a demographic tsunami – a force unprecedented in business history. During the next five to 10 years, many utilities will lose as much as 50 percent of their current workforce to retirement. Clerical and administrative staff, as well as field technicians, managers and supervisors, engineers, IT personnel and business executives will all be part of the retirement wave.

The effect of utility workforce retirement is more profound than simple personnel turnover, because it represents a loss of critical knowledge. This knowledge base embodies the art of the organization – not just the information documented in manuals, maps, procedures and databases but also the organization’s culture and attitudes.

As younger workers replace an aging and departing workforce, utilities could witness the fracture of the motivational belief system that once bound the workforce. To meet the utility’s objectives, new workers need to have access to the expertise and knowledge of prior generations of workers. They can then build on this knowledge with their own experiences, helping the utility achieve a new and positive culture for success.

CONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS

Industry literature suggests a number of solutions to the aging utility workforce problem:

  • Long-term staffing plans;
  • Partnerships with universities and community colleges;
  • Continuing education and training programs;
  • Active involvement in industry organizations; and
  • Internal knowledge sharing programs.

Each of these approaches plays a role in the solution, but collectively they still fall short of truly lessening the impact of the loss of half (or more) of a utility’s workforce. To wit: the number of students enrolled in college math and science programs (with the exception of computer and information science) continues to decline. And in the last 15 years, colleges and universities have seen a 50 percent decline in the number of graduating engineers (one of many skill sets a utility requires). All of which means that as utilities lose their skilled workers, they will not be able to replace those skills by drawing from the current labor pool. Solutions other than hiring programs will be needed to bridge the gap between skills lost and skills needed.

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Much of the technology utilities have implemented over the past five to 10 years has taken the form of “point” software solutions. By solving specific and limited problems, this software has tended to reinforce status quo business practices rather than enable innovation or better problem solving.

In many utilities, status quo means a vertical organization – a group of departmental silos that define the utility’s corporate structure. In a vertical structure, each group or department operates as a somewhat isolated entity, and each group “owns” the work to which it is assigned. But the manner in which utilities conduct business is comprised of horizontal processes spanning the office and the field – processes that are driven by the customer, whether commercial, industrial or residential.

Thus, vertical organizations often inhibit the type of change that can reduce headcount requirements and ensure better communication between remaining personnel. But changes that help flatten an organization horizontally – so that operations and procedures are viewed from end to end – can streamline business processes to improve handoffs between job roles and eliminate time-consuming and labor-intensive administration steps.

In the future, high-performance utilities will of necessity implement horizontal business process solutions that involve multiple systems spanning former organizational silos such as customer service and distribution operations. Horizontal solutions represent a quantum change in project complexity that will stretch many utilities’ internal organizations and define the systems integration market in the future.

The major opportunity offered by an integrated, horizontal solution lies in the creation of a strategic technology platform that offers the benefits of positive change and value creation. Such changes will be critical in supporting a utility as it undergoes workforce attrition and cultural evolution due to workforce retirements. The following represent some of the opportunities for change that high-performance utilities should be reviewing.

Business Process Change Opportunities

The term best practices has sometimes been defined as a generic methodology or a detailed scripting of events rather than an organized, documented view of the preferred and streamlined way to carry out a particular procedure. Many major technology initiatives and systems implementations have failed to deliver value to the utility because the true “best” practice is never defined, and therefore the transformation of the business process never occurs. The pressure to reduce costs and the rush to adopt scripts of existing procedures are the primary reasons for this disappointment.

The high-performance utility of the future, then, must commit to accurately defined best practices and a program of continuous process improvement. Such programs reduce costs by simplifying and standardizing business processes, eliminating paperwork and redundant data, reducing personnel interface points and viewing a utility’s operations from office to field as a single continuum. A strong strategic technology platform can support the capture and reinforcement of these standards.

Design Engineering Opportunities

The average investor-owned utility in North America has more than 50 design engineers architecting construction work undertaken by the utility. The design of such work involves significant systems support, including a geographic information system (GIS) and a graphical work design interface that links the GIS to a work management system.

Much of the construction work and underlying design work undertaken by utilities is repetitive. This type of repetitive work – particularly for light or medium construction activities – lends itself to design templates. In fact, design templates could accommodate as much as 80 percent of the design engineering workload. The development of a best practice based on standard designs for discrete types of work (and institutionalizing a standard design as a replicable template for the engineering department) can reduce a utility’s dependence on an increasingly limited supply of talented engineering labor.

Scheduling and Dispatching Opportunities

The average investor-owned utility (IOU) in North America has more than 700 field crews serving trouble response, customer service, maintenance and construction activities. Although job function definitions and responsibilities vary among utilities, the roles that manage the deployment of field crews may be defined as 1) schedulers; 2) dispatchers; 3) administrative personnel; and 4) field supervisors. All of these individuals may actively schedule or dispatch the field workforce, even within the same utility.

The same average IOU also has as many as 60 full-time employees (approximately one for every 12 field crews) involved in scheduling, dispatching, monitoring and providing administrative support to the field workforce. The staff handling these tasks is often functionally, organizationally and geographically dispersed – thanks largely to the point software mobile applications that mirror the organizational silos that acquired the applications. Typically, each piece of software addresses one job type: emergencies, customer service, maintenance or construction. Accordingly, each department employs multiple staff to schedule and/or dispatch each type of job.

This kind of environment spells opportunity for utilities facing shrinking workforces, since a single scheduling and dispatching technology can have immense cost-reduction implications (including reducing redundant job roles.)

The scheduling of field personnel can also be worked into a single dispatch strategy. Utilities need a unified method of work allocation – a kind of utility command and control center for scheduling and dispatching all work. The right strategic technology platform incorporates significant business intelligence, understands job dependencies, employs least-cost routing and continually provides the user with an optimized schedule throughout the workday. As the scheduling software assumes more of the scheduling responsibility, the 60 full-time employees formerly required by an average utility become unnecessary, thereby eliminating a major staffing concern.

Wireless Opportunities

For the last two years in North America, utilities have issued more RFPs for mobile workforce management than any other application domain. All of the top 100 North American IOUs employ some form of mobile deployment. However, these applications are point software solutions that address one job type, such as trouble reporting; they do not currently support a horizontal dispatching and scheduling function. Furthermore, many utilities lack an overarching, dedicated wireless strategy to fully mobilize the workforce.

Utilities require a plug-and-play wireless communications architecture that 1) manages the fl ow of data between office and field; 2) maximizes the bandwidth and throughput of existing utility RF radio, wire line and wireless networks; 3) assigns priorities to time-sensitive data; and 4) provides least-cost routing (network choice). This represents a complex undertaking – and one that no utility has yet mastered. There is no generic plug-and-play platform that manages field workforces in this way. Indeed, a universal communications platform (dispatch) that manages all types of work has been the holy grail of the network connectivity business. No utility has this capability today.

Once it is achieved, however, a universal architecture will allow the utility to plug-and-play back-office and mobile applications to broaden the footprint of work conducted wirelessly in the field. A universal mobile application controller that manages all types of work will power the future of mobile computing for the industry – but no utility has this capability today. In addition to application and network independence, the utility’s wireless enterprise strategy must accommodate the management of multiple field devices, and the supporting server and communications hardware/middleware environment.

An integrated universal communications platform must be viewed as the next technology that will enable utilities to lessen their dependence on headcount. The technologies that support such a platform are being created now; in order to blunt the impact of a disappearing workforce, high-performance utilities need to begin partnering with systems integrators that can bring these technologies to the table.

THE FUTURE OF TECHNOLOGY: SOLUTION OPTIMIZATION

The next significant strategic technologies implemented by utilities will be those that optimize solutions and processes. These systems will help the utility institutionalize the knowledge of seasoned employees and incorporate that knowledge into documented, sustainable best practices. In addition, new strategic technologies will help the utility evolve best practices over time through a program of continuous process improvement. Furthermore, these new technologies will provide the utility with ways to most effectively use both new and existing applications to perform work across the entire horizontal utility organization.

Instead of tactically buying enabling technology such as software, utilities will strategically partner with organizations that can deliver technology that creates value within the utility. Utilities will increasingly seek partners who own the business result, not simply the process or the IT infrastructure. Such partners will share utility risk and reward in a program of continuous process improvement, as they and the utility constantly refine and optimize solutions.

CONCLUSION

What will the high-performance utility look like in 10 years? For starters, it will have fewer employees and more new faces. It will have lost much of the culture it relied on to drive its business forward. But if it makes the right plans today, it will ultimately gain a new culture that takes advantage of the best of the old knowledge combined with the advantages of a new strategic technology platform. The new platform will unite all segments of utility operations within a single set of business goals. A workforce that is disappearing due to retirement doesn’t need to spell disaster if a utility takes steps now. These steps include applying conventional hiring approaches, embracing new technology and seeking out vendor partnerships to help unite and optimize the utility’s work processes.

Policy and Regulatory Initiatives And the Smart Grid

Public policy is commonly defined as a plan of action designed to guide decisions for achieving a targeted outcome. In the case of smart grids, new policies are needed if smart grids are actually to become a reality. This statement may sound dire, given the recent signing into law of the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) in the United States. And in fact, work is underway in several countries to encourage smart grids and smart grid components such as smart metering. However, the risk still exists that unless stronger policies are enacted, grid modernization investments will fail to leverage the newer and better technologies now emerging, and smart grid efforts will never move beyond demonstration projects. This would be an unfortunate result when you consider the many benefits of a true smart grid: cost savings for the utility, reduced bills for customers, improved reliability and better environmental stewardship.

REGIONAL AND NATIONAL EFFORTS

As mentioned above, several regions are experimenting with smart grid provisions. At the national level, the U.S. federal government has enacted two pieces of legislation that support advanced metering and smart grids. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 directed U.S. utility regulators to consider time-of-use meters for their states. The 2007 EISA legislation has several provisions, including a list of smart grid goals to encourage two-way, real-time digital networks that stretch from a consumer’s home to the distribution network. The law also provides monies for regional demonstration projects and matching grants for smart grid investments. The EISA legislation also mandates the development of an “interoperability framework.”

In Europe, the European Union (E.U.) introduced a strategic energy technology plan in 2006 for the development of a smart electricity system over the next 30 years. The European Technology Platform organization includes representatives from industry, transmission and distribution system operators, research bodies and regulators. The organization has identified objectives and proposes a strategy to make the smart grid vision a reality.

Regionally, several U.S. states and Canadian provinces are focused on smart grid investments. In Canada, the Ontario Energy Board has mandated smart meters, with meter installation completion anticipated by 2010. In Texas, the Public Utilities Commission of Texas (PUCT) has finalized advanced metering legislation that authorizes metering cost recovery through surcharges. The PUCT also stipulated key components of an advanced metering system: two-way communications, time-date stamp, remote connect/disconnect, and access to consumer usage for both the consumer and the retail energy provider. The Massachusetts State Senate approved an energy bill that includes smart grid and time-of-use pricing. The bill requires that utilities submit a plan by Sept. 1, 2008, to the Massachusetts Public Utilities Commission, establishing a six-month pilot program for a smart grid. Most recently, California, Washington state and Maryland all introduced smart grid legislation.

AN ENCOMPASSING VISION

While these national and regional examples represent just a portion of the ongoing activity in this area, the issue remains that smart grid and advanced metering pilot programs do not guarantee a truly integrated, interoperable, scalable smart grid. Granted, a smart grid is not achieved overnight, but an encompassing smart grid vision should be in place as modernization and metering decisions are made, so that investment is consistent with the plan in mind. Obviously, challenges – such as financing, system integration and customer education – exist in moving from pilot to full grid deployment. However, many utility and regulatory personnel perceive these challenges to be ones of costs and technology readiness.

The costs are considerable. KEMA, the global energy consulting firm, estimates that the average cost of a smart meter project (representing just a portion of a smart grid project) is $775 million. The E.U.’s Strategic Energy Technology Plan estimates that the total smart grid investment required could be as much as $750 billion. These amounts are staggering when you consider that the market capitalization of all U.S. investor-owned electric utilities is roughly $550 billion. However, they’re not nearly as significant when you subtract the costs of fixing the grid using business-as-usual methods. Transmission and distribution expenditures are occurring with and without intelligence. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that between now and 2020 more than $200 billion will be spent to maintain and expand electricity transmission and distribution infrastructures in the United States alone.

Technology readiness will always be a concern in large system projects. Advances are being made in communication, sensor and security technologies, and IT. The Federal Communications Commission is pushing for auctions to accelerate adoption of different communication protocols. Price points are decreasing for pervasive cellular communication networks. Electric power equipment manufacturers are utilizing the new IEC 61850 standard to ensure interoperability among sensor devices. vendors are using approaches for security products that will enable north American Electric Reliability Corp. (nERC) and critical infrastructure protection (CIP) compliance.

In addition, IT providers are using event-driven architecture to ensure responsiveness to external events, rather than processing transactional events, and reaching new levels with high-speed computer analytics. leading service-oriented architecture companies are working with utilities to establish the underlying infrastructure critical to system integration. Finally, work is occurring in the standards community by the E.U., the Gridwise Architecture Council (GAC), Intelligrid, the national Energy Technology laboratory (nETl) and others to create frameworks for linking communication and electricity interoperability among devices, systems and data flows.

THE TIME IS NOW

These challenges should not halt progress – especially when one considers the societal benefits. Time stops for no one, and certainly in the case of the energy sector that statement could not be more accurate. Energy demand is increasing. The Energy Information Administration estimates that annual energy demand will increase roughly 50 percent over the next 25 years. Meanwhile, the debate over global warming seems to have waned. Few authorities are disputing the escalating concentrations of several greenhouse gases due to the burning of fossil fuels. The E.U. is attempting to decrease emissions through its 2006 Energy Efficiency directive. Many industry observers in the United States believe that there will likely be federal regulation of greenhouse gases within the next three years.

A smart grid would address many of these issues, giving options to the consumer to manage their usage and costs. By optimizing asset utilization, the smart grid will provide savings in that there is less need to build more power plants to meet increased electricity demand. As a self-healing grid that detects, responds and restores functions, the smart grid can greatly reduce the economic impact of blackout and power interruption grid failures.

A smart grid that provides the needed power quality can ensure the strong and resilient energy infrastructure necessary for the 21st-century economy. A smart grid also offers consumers options for managing their usage and costs. Further, a smart grid will enable plug-and-play integration of renewables, distributed resources and control systems. lastly, a smart grid will better enable plug-and-play integration of renewables, distributed resources and control systems.

INCENTIVES FOR MODERNIZATION

despite all of these potential benefits, more incentives are needed to drive grid modernization efforts. Several mechanisms are available to encourage investment. Some utilities are already using or evaluating alternative rate structures such as net metering and revenue decoupling to give utilities and consumer incentives to use less energy. net metering awards energy incentives or credit for consumer-based renewables. And revenue decoupling is a mechanism designed to eliminate or reduce dependence of a utility’s revenues on sales. Other programs – such as energy-efficiency or demand-reduction incentives – motivate consumers and businesses to adopt long-term energy-efficient behaviors (such as using programmable thermostats) and to consider energy efficiency when using appliances and computers, and even operating their homes.

Policy and regulatory strategy should incorporate these means and include others, such as accelerated depreciation and tax incentives. Accelerated depreciation encourages businesses to purchase new assets, since depreciation is steeper in the earlier years of the asset’s life and taxes are deferred to a later period. Tax incentives could be put in place for purchasing smart grid components. Utility Commissions could require utilities to consider all societal benefits, rather than just rate impacts, when crafting the business case. Utilities could take federal income tax credits for the investments. leaders could include smart grid technologies as a critical component of their overall energy policy.

Only when all of these policies and incentives are put in place will smart grids truly become a reality.

The Customer-Focused Utility

THE CHANGING DYNAMICS OF CUSTOMER RELATIONSHIPS

The utilities industry is in transition. External factors – including shifts in governmental policies, a globally felt sense of urgency about conserving energy, advances in power generation techniques and new technologies – are driving massive changes throughout the industry. Utilities are also under internal pressure to prevent profit margins from eroding. But most significantly, utilities must evolve to compete in a marketplace where consumers increasingly expect high-quality customer service and believe that no company deserves their unconditional loyalty if it cannot perform to expectations. These pressures are putting many utility providers into seriously competitive, market-driven situations where the customer experience becomes a primary differentiator.

In the past, utility companies had very limited interactions with customers. Apart from opening new accounts and billing for services, the relationship was remote, with customers giving no more thought to their power provider than they would to finding a post office. Consumers were indifferent to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and essentially took a passive view of all utility functions, only contacting the utility if their lights temporarily went out.

In contrast, the utility of the future can expect a much more intense level of customer involvement. If utilities embrace programs to change customers’ behaviors – for example, by implementing time-of-use rates – customers will need more information on a timelier basis in order to make educated decisions. In addition, customers will expect higher levels of service to keep up with changes in the rest of the commercial world. As consumers get used to checking their bank account and credit card balances via mobile devices, they’ll soon expect the same from all similar services, including their utility company. As younger consumers (Generation Y and now Generation Z) begin their relationships with utilities, they bring expectations of a digital, mobile and collaborative customer service experience. Taking a broader perspective, most age segments – even baby boomers – will begin demanding these new multichannel experiences at times that are convenient for them.

The most significant industry shifts will alter the level of interaction between the utility grid and the home. In the past, this was a one-way street; in the future, however, more households will be adopting “participatory generation” due to their increased use of renewable energy. This will require a more sophisticated home/ grid relationship, in order to track the give and take of power between consumers as both users and generators. This shift will likely change the margin equation for most utility companies.

Customer Demands Drive Technology Change; Technology Change Drives Customer Demand

Utilities are addressing these and other challenges by implementing new business models that are supported by new technologies. The most visible – and arguably the most important – of the new technologies are advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and the technical components of the smart grid, which integrates AMI with distribution automation and other technologies to connect a utility’s equipment, devices, systems, customers, partners and employees. The integration of these technologies with customer information systems (CIS) and other customer relationship management (CRM) tools will increase consumer control of energy expenditures. Most companies in the industry will need to shift away from the “ratepayer” approach they currently use to serve residential and small business customers, and adapt to changing consumer behavior and emerging business models enabled by new network and generation technologies.

Impacts on the Customer Experience

There are multiple paths to smart grid deployment, all of which utility firms have employed to leverage new sources of data on power demand. If we consider a gradual transformation from today’s centralized, one-way view to a network that is both distributed and dynamic, we can begin to project how technological shifts will impact the utility-consumer relationship, as illustrated in Figure 1.

The future industry value chain for grid-connected customers will have the same physical elements and flow as the current one but be able to provide many more information-oriented elements. Consequently, the shift to a customer-focused view will have serious implications for data management. These include a proliferation of data as well as new mandates for securely tracking, updating, accessing, analyzing and ensuring quality.

In addition, utilities must develop customer experience capabilities in parallel with extending their energy information management capabilities. Taking the smart grid path requires customers to be more involved, as decision-making responsibility shifts more toward the consumer, as depicted in Figure 2.

It’s also important to consider some of the new interactions that consumers will have with their utility company. Some of these will be viewed as “features” of the new technology, whereas others may significantly change how consumers view their relationship with their energy provider. Still others will have a profound impact on how data is captured and deployed within the organization. These interactions may include:

  • Highly detailed, timely and accurate individuated customer information;
  • Interaction between the utility and smart devices – including the meter – in the home (possibly based on customers’ preferences);
  • Seamless, bidirectional, individual communication permitting an extended dialogue across multiple channels such as short message service, integrated voice response, portals and customer care;
  • Rapid (real-time) analysis of prior usage, current usage and prediction of future usage under multiple usage and tariff models;
  • Information presented in a customer-friendly manner;
  • Analytical tools that enable customers to model their consumption behavior and understand the impact of changes on energy cost and carbon footprint;
  • Ability to access and integrate a wide range of external information sources, and present pertinent selections to a customer;
  • Integration of information flow from field operations to the customer call center infrastructure; and
  • Highly skilled, knowledgeable contact center agents who can not only provide accurate information but can advise and recommend products, services, rate plans or changes in consumption profiles.

Do We Need to Begin Thinking About Customers Differently?

Two primary factors will determine the nature of the interface between utilities and consumers in the future. The first is the degree to which consumers will take the initiative in making decisions about the energy supply and their own energy consumption. Second, the amount and percentage of consumers’ disposable income that they allocate to energy will directly influence their consumption and conservation choices, as shown in Figure 3.

How Do Utilities Influence Customers’ Behavior?

One of the major benefits of involving energy customers in generation and consumption decisions is that it can serve to decrease base load. Traditionally, utilities have taken two basic approaches to accomplishing this: coercion and enticement. Coercion is a penalty-based approach for inducing a desired behavior. For example, utilities may charge higher rates for peak period usage, forcing customers to change the hours when they consume power or pay more for peak period usage. The risks of this approach include increased customer dissatisfaction and negative public and regulatory opinion.

Enticement, on the other hand, is an incentive-based approach for driving a desired behavior. For example, utilities could offer cost savings to customers who shift power consumption to off-peak times. The risks associated with this approach include low customer involvement, because incentives may not be enough to overcome the inconvenience to customers.

Both of these approaches have produced results in the past, but neither will necessarily work in the new, more interactive environment. A number of other strategies may prove more effective in the future. For example, customer goal achievement may be one way to generate positive behavior. This model offers benefits to customers by making it easier for them to achieve their own energy consumption or conservation goals. It also gives customers the feeling that they have choices – which promotes a more positive relationship between the customer and the utility. Ease of use represents another factor that influences customer behavior. Companies can accomplish this by creating programs and interfaces that make it simple for the customer to analyze information and make decisions.

There is no “silver bullet” approach to successfully influencing all customers in all utility environments. Often, each customer segment must be treated differently, and each utility company will need to develop a unique customer experience strategy and plan that fits the needs of its unique business situation. The variables will include macro factors such as geography, customer econo-graphics and energy usage patterns; however, they’ll also involve more nuanced attributes such as customer service experiences, customer advocacy attitudes and their individual emotional dispositions.

CONCLUSION

Most utilities considering implementing advanced metering or broader smart grid efforts focus almost exclusively on deploying new technologies. However, they also need to consider customer behavior. Utilities must adopt a new approach that expands the scope of their strategic road map by integrating the “voice of the customer” into the technology planning and deployment process.

By carefully examining a utility customer’s expectations and anticipating the customer impacts brought on by innovative technologies, smart utility companies can get ahead of the customer experience curve, drive more value to the bottom line and ultimately become truly customer focused.

Collaborative Policy Making And the Smart Grid

A search on Google for the keywords smart grid returns millions of results. A list of organizations talking about or working on smart grid initiatives would likely yield similar results. Although meant humorously, this illustrates the proliferation of groups interested in redesigning and rebuilding the varied power infrastructure to support the future economy. Since building a smart infrastructure is clearly in the public’s interest, it’s important that all affected stakeholders – from utilities and legislators to consumers and regulators – participate in creating the vision, policies and framework for these critical and important investments.

One organization, the GridWise Alliance, was formed specifically to promote a broad collaborative effort for all interest groups shaping this agenda. Representing a consortium of more than 60 public organizations and private companies, GridWise Alliance members are aligned around a shared vision of a transformed and modern electric system that integrates infrastructure, processes, devices, information and market structure so that energy can be generated, distributed and consumed more reliably and cost-effectively.

From the time of its creation in 2003, the GridWise Alliance has focused on the federal legislative process to ensure that smart grid programs and policies were included in the priorities of the various federal agencies. The Alliance continues to focus on articulating to elected officials, public policy agencies and the private sector the urgent need to build a smarter 21st-century utility infrastructure. Last year, the Alliance provided significant input into the development of smart grid legislation, which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the President at the end of 2007. The Alliance has evolved to become one of the “go-to” parties for members of Congress and their staffs as they prepare for new legislation aimed at transforming to a modern and intelligent electricity grid.

The Alliance continues to demonstrate its effectiveness in various ways. The chair of the Alliance, Guido Bartels, joins representatives from seven other Alliance member companies in recently being named to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee (EAC). This organization is being established to “enhance leadership in electricity delivery modernization and provide senior-level counsel to DOE on ways that the nation can meet the many barriers to moving forward, including the deployment of smart grid technologies.” Another major area of focus is the national GridWeek conference. This year’s GridWeek 2008 is focused on “delivering sustainable energy.” The Alliance expects more than 800 participants to discuss and debate topics such as Enabling Energy Efficiency, Smart Grid in a Carbon Economy and Securing the Smart Grid.

Going forward, the Alliance will expand its reach by continuing to broaden its membership and by working with other U.S. stakeholder organizations to provide a richer understanding of the value and impacts of a smart grid. The Alliance is already working with organizations such as the NARUC-FERC Smart Grid Collaborative, the National Council of State legislators (NCSl), the National Governors’ Association (NGA), the American Public Power Association (APPA) and others. Beyond U.S. borders, the Alliance will continue to strengthen its relations with other smart grid organizations like those in the European Union and Australia to ensure that we’re gaining insight and best practices from other markets.

Collaboration such as that exemplified by the Alliance is critical for making effective and impactful public policy. The future of our nation’s electricity infrastructure, economy and, ultimately, health and safety depends on the leadership of organizations such as the GridWise Alliance.

Developing a Customer Value Transformation Road Map

Historically, utility customers have had limited interactions with their electric or gas utilities, except to start or stop service, report outages, and pay bills or resolve billing questions. This situation is changing as the result of factors that include rising energy prices, increasing concerns about the environment and trends toward more customer interaction and control among other service providers – such as cell phone companies. Over the next five to 10 years, we expect utility customers to continue seeking improvements in three key areas:

  • Increased communication with their utility company, through a greater variety of media;
  • Improved understanding of and control over their own energy use; and
  • More accurate and timely information on outage events and service restoration.

Moreover, as the generations that have grown up with cell phones, the Internet, MP3 players and other digital devices move into adulthood, they will expect utilities to keep pace with their own technological sophistication. These new customers will assume that they can customize the nature of their communications with both friends and businesses. Utilities that can provide these capabilities will unlock new sources of revenue and be better able to retain customers when faced with competition.

The intelligent utility network (IUN) will be a key enabler of these new customer capabilities and services. But not all customers will want all of the new capabilities, so utilities need to understand and carefully analyze the value of each among various customer segments. This will require utilities to prepare sound business cases and prioritize their plans for meeting future customer needs.

One of the first initiatives that utilities launching an IUN program should undertake is the development of a “customer value transformation road map.” The road map approach allows utilities to establish the types of capabilities and services that customers will want, to identify and define the gaps in current processes and systems that must be overcome to meet these needs, and to develop plans to close those gaps.

TRANSFORMATION ROAD MAP DEVELOPMENT APPROACH

Our approach for developing the customer value transformation road map includes four tasks, as depicted in Figure 1.

Task 1: Customer Requirements

The primary challenge facing utilities in defining customer requirements is the need to anticipate their desires and preferences at least five to 10 years into the future. Developing this predictive vision can be difficult for managers because they’re often “locked into” their current views of customers, and their expectations are based largely on historical experience. To overcome this, utilities can learn from other industries that are already traveling this path.

The telecommunications providers, as one example, have made substantial progress in meeting evolving customer needs over the last decade. While more changes lie ahead for telecommunications, the industry has significantly enhanced the customer experience, created differentiated capabilities for various customer segments and succeeded in developing many of these capabilities into profit-generating services. This progress can serve as both an inspiration and a guide as utilities start down a similar path.

The first step in defining future customer requirements is to segment the customer base into the various customer groups that are likely to have different needs. Although these segments will likely vary for each utility, we believe that the following seven major customer segments serve as a useful starting point for this work:

  • Residential – tech savvy. These are customers who want many different electronic communication pathways but don’t necessarily want to develop a detailed understanding of the trends and patterns in their energy usage.
  • Residential – low tech. These customers prefer traditional, less high tech ways of communicating, but may want to perform analysis of their usage.
  • Residential – low income. These are customers who want to understand what’s driving their energy expenditures and how to reduce their bills; many of these customers are also tech savvy.
  • Special needs. These customers, often elderly, may live on fixed incomes and are accustomed to careful planning, and want no surprises in their interactions with providers of utility services. They frequently need help from others to manage their daily activities.
  • Small business. These commercial customers are typically very cost-conscious and highly adaptable and seek creative but relatively simple solutions to their energy management challenges.
  • Large commercial. These are customers who are cost-conscious and capable of investing substantial time and money in order to analyze and reduce their energy use in sophisticated ways.
  • Industrial. These very large customers are sophisticated, cost-conscious and increasingly focused on environmental issues.

The next step in defining future customer requirements is to understand the points in the utility value chain at which customers will interact with their utility. Based on recent trends for both utilities and other industries, the following “touch point” areas are a good starting point:

  • Reliability and restoration;
  • Billing;
  • Customer service;
  • Energy information and control; and
  • Environment.

Not all of these requirements will be important to all customer segments. It is essential to establish the most important requirements for each segment and each touch point. Figure 2 provides one example of a preliminary assessment of the relative importance of selected customer requirements for the reliability and restoration category, across the seven specified customer segments. Each customer need is assigned a high (H), medium (M) or low (L) rank.

Once this preliminary assessment is completed, utilities should consider conducting several workshops with participants from various functional departments. The goal of these workshops is to obtain feedback, to evaluate even more thoroughly the importance of each potential requirement and to begin to secure internal acceptance of the customer requirements that are determined to be worth pursuing. Departments that should participate in such workshops include those focused on regulatory requirements, billing, corporate communications, demand-side management, customer operations, complaint resolution and outage management.

One way of making the workshop process more “real” and therefore more effective is to develop customer use scenarios that incorporate each potential requirement. For example, the following billing scenarios could be used to illustrate potential customer requirements and to facilitate more effective evaluation of what will be needed for billing:

  • Billing Scenario 1. I want my gas and electric bills to be unified so that I don’t have to spend extra time making multiple payments. Also, I want the choice of paying my bill electronically, by mail or in person, based on what’s convenient for me, not what’s convenient for my utility.
  • Billing Scenario 2. My parents, who are now retired, receive fixed pension checks, and I want their utility to set up a payment plan for them that results in equal payments over the year, rather than high payments in the summer and low payments in the winter. My parents also want the ability to see a summarized version of their bill in large print, so that they can easily read and understand their energy use and costs.
  • Billing Scenario 3. My kids are on their computer nearly all of the time, and the remainder of the time they seem to be playing their video games. Also, they rarely turn off lights, and all of these things are increasing my energy bills. I want my utility to help me set up a balance limit so that if our energy usage reaches a set level, I’m automatically notified and I have the option of taking some corrective actions. I also expect my meter readings to be accurate rather than simply rough estimates, because I want to understand exactly how much energy I am consuming and what it’s costing me.

In addition to assessing the value of each requirement to customers, it is also important to rank these requirements based on other factors, such as their impacts on the utility. Financial costs and benefits, for example, clearly need to be estimated and considered when evaluating a requirement, regardless of how important the requirement will be to customers. To draw all of these assessments together, it is useful to assign weights to each assessment area – for example, a weight of 35 percent for customer importance, 30 percent for utility costs/benefits and 35 percent for the value that regulators will perceive. Once an appropriate weighting scheme is applied, the utility can rank the requirements and develop a list of those with the highest priority.

Task 2: Gaps

To assess gaps in current capabilities that could prevent a utility from meeting important and valuable customer requirements, the utility should next identify the business processes, organizations and technologies that will “deliver” those requirements. This requires a careful analysis of current and planned process, organizational and technology capabilities, which can be challenging because other initiatives will be affecting these areas even as customer requirements evolve. Moreover, many utilities do not have accurate, detailed documentation of current processes and systems. Therefore, a series of workshops and interviews with functional and technology leaders and staff is necessary. The results of these workshops should be supplemented by analysis of planned systems and process transformations, in order to assess current gaps and to determine whether those gaps will be closed – based on plans that are already in place. If such gaps remain, new projects and capital investments may be required to close
them and to meet expected customer requirements.

During the gap assessment process, it’s critical that the customer value team work closely with other IUN teams to ensure that the customer value gap analysis is coordinated with the broader gap analysis for the IUN program. Important areas to coordinate include automated meter information, demand-side management, outage management and asset management.

Task 3: Business Case Support

While conducting the first two tasks, the assessment team should be able to develop a deep understanding of the costs required to meet the important customer requirements as well as the financial benefits. Because it’s typical to develop consolidated business cases for the IUN, the customer value team should work with the overall IUN business case team to support business case development by bringing this information into the process.

Task 4: Transformation Road Map

This final task builds on an understanding of both the customer requirements and the gaps in current operations to create the customer value transformation road map. The initiatives in the road map will typically be defined across the following primary areas:

  • Process;
  • Technology;
  • Performance metrics;
  • Organization and training; and
  • Project management.

For each of these areas, the road map will establish the timing and sequence of initiatives to close the gaps, based on:

  • The utility’s strategic priorities and capacity for change;
  • Linkages to the utility’s overall IUN transformation plans; and
  • Technology dependencies and links to other work areas.
  • Figure 3 provides a summary of the initiatives from a typical customer value transformation road map. The detail behind this summary provides a path to transforming the customer-related operations to meet expected customer requirements over the next five to 10 years.

    CONCLUSION

    Our “customer value transformation road map” approach provides utilities with a structured process for identifying, assessing and prioritizing future customer requirements. Utilities that are successful in developing such a road map will be better prepared to build customer needs into their overall IUN transformation plans. These companies will in turn increase the likelihood that their IUN transformation will improve customer satisfaction, reduce customer care costs and lead to new sources of revenue.

SmartGridNet Architecture for Utilities

With the accelerating movement toward distributed generation and the rapid shift in energy consumption patterns, today’s power utilities are facing growing requirements for improved management, capacity planning, control, security and administration of their infrastructure and services.

UTILITY NETWORK BUSINESS DRIVERS

These requirements are driving a need for greater automation and control throughout the power infrastructure, from generation through the customer site. In addition, utilities are interested in providing end-customers with new applications, such as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), online usage reports and outage status. In addition to meeting these requirements, utilities are under pressure to reduce costs and automate operations, as well as protect their infrastructures from service disruption in compliance with homeland security requirements.

To succeed, utilities must seamlessly support these demands with an embedded infrastructure of traditional devices and technologies. This will allow them to provide a smooth evolution to next-generation capabilities, manage life cycle issues for aging equipment and devices, maintain service continuity, minimize capital investment, and ensure scalability and future-proofing for new applications, such as smart metering.

By adopting an evolutionary approach to an intelligent communications network (SmartGridNet), utilities can maximize their ability to leverage the existing asset base and minimize capital and operations expenses.

THE NEED FOR AN INTELLIGENT UTILITY NETWORK

As a first step toward implementing a SmartGridNet, utilities must implement intelligent electronic devices (IEDs) throughout the infrastructure – from generation and transmission through distribution directly to customer premises – if they are to effectively monitor and manage facilities, load and usage. A sophisticated operational communications network then interconnects such devices through control centers, providing support for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), teleprotection, remote meter reading, and operational voice and video. This network also enables new applications such as field personnel management and dispatch, safety and localization. In addition, the utility’s corporate communications network increases employee productivity and improves customer service by providing multimedia; voice, video, and data communications; worker mobility; and contact center capabilities.

These two network types – operational and corporate – and the applications they support may leverage common network facilities; however, they have very different requirements for availability, service assurance, bandwidth, security and performance.

SMARTGRIDNET REQUIREMENTS

Network technology is critical to the evolution of the next-generation utility. The SmartGridNet must support the following key requirements:

  • Virtualization. Enables operation of multiple virtual networks over common infrastructure and facilities while maintaining mutual isolation and distinct levels of service.
  • Quality of service (QoS). Allows priority treatment of critical traffic on a “per-network, per-service, per-user basis.”
  • High availability. Ensures constant availability of critical communications, transparent restoration and “always on” service – even when the public switched telephony network (PSTN) or local power supply suffers outages.
  • Multipoint-to-multipoint communications. Provides integrated control and data collection across multiple sensors and regulators via synchronized, redundant control centers for disaster recovery.
  • Two-way communications. Supports increasingly sophisticated interactions between control centers and end-customers or field forces to enable new capabilities, such as customer sellback, return or credit allocation for locally stored power; improved field service dispatch; information sharing; and reporting.
  • Mobile services. Improves employee efficiency, both within company facilities and in the field.
  • Security. Protects the infrastructure from malicious and inadvertent compromise from both internal and external sources, ensures service reliability and continuity, and complies with critical security regulations such as North American Electric Reliability Corp. (NERC).
  • Legacy service integration. Accommodates the continued presence of legacy remote terminal units (RTUs), meters, sensors and regulators, supporting circuit, X.25, frame relay (FR), and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) interfaces and communications.
  • Future-proofing. Capability and scalability to meet not just today’s applications, but tomorrow’s, as driven by regulatory requirements (such as smart metering) and new revenue opportunities, such as utility delivery of business and residential telecommunications (U-Telco) services.

SMARTGRIDNET EVOLUTION

A number of network technologies – both wire-line and wireless – work together to achieve these requirements in a SmartGridNet. Utilities must leverage a range of network integration disciplines to engineer a smooth transformation of their existing infrastructure to a SmartGridNet.

The remainder of this paper describes an evolutionary scenario, in which:

  • Next-generation synchronous optical network (SONET)-based multiservice provisioning platforms (MSPPs), with native QoS-enabled Ethernet capabilities are seamlessly introduced at the transport layer to switch traffic from both embedded sensors and next-generation IEDs.
  • Cost-effective wave division multiplexing (WDM) is used to increase communications network capacity for new traffic while leveraging embedded fiber assets.
  • Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS)/ IP routing infrastructure is introduced as an overlay on the transport layer only for traffic requiring higher-layer services that cannot be addressed more efficiently by the transport layer MSPPs.
  • Circuit emulation over IP virtual private networks (VPNs) is supported as a means for carrying sensor traffic over shared or leased network facilities.
  • A variety of communications applications are delivered over this integrated infrastructure to enhance operational efficiency, reliability, employee productivity and customer satisfaction.
  • A toolbox of access technologies is appropriately applied, per specific area characteristics and requirements, to extend power service monitoring and management all the way to the end-customer’s premises.
  • A smart home network offers new capabilities to the end-customer, such as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), appliance control and flexible billing models.
  • Managed and assured availability, security, performance and regulatory compliance of the communications network.

THE SMARTGRIDNET ARCHITECTURE

Figure 1 provides an architectural framework that we may use to illustrate and map the relevant communications technologies and protocols.

The backbone network in Figure 1 interconnects corporate sites and data centers, control centers, generation facilities, transmission and distribution substations, and other core facilities. It can isolate the distinct operational and corporate communications networks and subnetworks while enforcing the critical network requirements outlined in the section above.

The underlying transport network for this intelligent backbone is made up of both fiber and wireless (for example, microwave) technologies. The backbone also employs ring and mesh architectures to provide high availability and rapid restoration.

INTELLIGENT CORE TRANSPORT

As alluring as pure packet networks may be, synchronous SONET remains a key technology for operational backbones. Only SONET can support the range of new and legacy traffic types while meeting the stringent absolute delay, differential delay and 50-millisecond restoration requirements of real-time traffic.

SONET transport for legacy traffic may be provided in MSPPs, which interoperate with embedded SONET elements to implement ring and mesh protection over fiber facilities and time division multiplexing (TDM)-based microwave. Full-featured Ethernet switch modules in these MSPPs enable next-generation traffic via Ethernet over SONET (EOS) and/or packet over SONET (POS). Appropriate, cost-effective wave division multiplexing (WDM) solutions – for example, coarse, passive and dense WDM – may also be applied to guarantee sufficient capacity while leveraging existing fiber assets.

BACKBONE SWITCHING/ROUTING

From a switching and routing perspective, a significant amount of traffic in the backbone may be managed at the transport layer – for example, via QoS-enabled Ethernet switching capabilities embedded in the SONET-based MSPPs. This is a key capability for supporting expedited delivery of critical traffic types, enabling utilities to migrate to more generic object-oriented substation event (GOOSE)-based inter-substation communications for SCADA and teleprotection in the future in accordance with standards such as IEC 61850.

Where higher-layer services – for example, IP VPN, multicast, ATM and FR – are required, however, utilities can introduce a multi-service switching/routing infrastructure incrementally on top of the transport infrastructure. The switching infrastructure is based on multi-protocol label switching (MPLS), implementing Layer 2 transport encapsulation and/or IP VPNs, per the relevant Internet engineering task force (IETF) requests for comments (RFCs).

This type of unified infrastructure reduces operations costs by sharing switching and restoration capabilities across multiple services. Current IP/MPLS switching technology is consistent with the network requirements summarized above for service traffic requiring higher-layer services, and may be combined with additional advanced services such as Layer 3 VPNs and unified threat management (UTM) devices/firewalls for further protection and isolation of traffic.

CORE COMMUNICATIONS APPLICATIONS

Operational services such as tele-protection and SCADA represent key categories of applications driving the requirements for a robust, secure, cost-effective network as described. Beyond these, there are a number of communications applications enabling improved operational efficiency for the utility, as well as mechanisms to enhance employee productivity and customer service. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Active network controls. Improves capacity and utilization of the electricity network.
  • Voice over IP (VoIP). Leverages common network infrastructure to reduce the cost of operational and corporate voice communications – for example, eliminating costly channel banks for individual lines required at remote substations.
  • Closed circuit TV (CCTV)/Video Over IP. Improves surveillance of remote assets and secure automated facilities.
  • Multimedia collaboration. Combines voice, video and data traffic in a rich application suite to enhance communication and worker productivity, giving employees direct access to centralized expertise and online resources (for example, standards and diagrams).
  • IED interconnection. Better measures and manages the electricity networks.
  • Mobility. Leverages in-plant and field worker mobility – via cellular, land mobile radio (LMR) and WiFi – to improve efficiency of key work processes.
  • Contact center. Employs next-generation communications and best-in-class customer service business processes to improve customer satisfaction.

DISTRIBUTION AND ACCESS NETWORKS

The intelligent utility distribution and access networks are subtending networks from the backbone, accommodating traffic between backbone switches/applications and devices in the distribution infrastructure all the way to the customer premises. IEDs on customer premises include automated meters and device regulators to detect and manage customer power usage.

These new devices are primarily packet-based. They may, therefore, be best supported by packet-based access network technologies. However, for select rings, TDM may also be chosen, as warranted. The packet-based access network technology chosen depends on the specifics of the sites to be connected and the economics associated with that area (for example, right of way, customer densities and embedded infrastructure).

Regardless of the access and last-mile network designs, traffic ultimately arrives at the network via an IP/MPLS edge switch/router with connectivity to the backbone IP/MPLS infrastructure. This switching/routing infrastructure ensures connectivity among the intelligent edge devices, core capabilities and control applications.

THE SMART HOME NETWORK

A futuristic home can support many remotely controlled and managed appliances centered on lifestyle improvements of security, entertainment, health and comfort (see Figure 2). In such a home, applications like smart meters and appliance control could be provided by application service providers (ASPs) (such as smart meter operators or utilities), using a home service manager and appropriate service gateways. This architecture differentiates between the access provider – that is, the utility/U-Telco or other public carrier – and the multiple ASPs who may provide applications to a home via the access provider.

FLEXIBLE CHARGING

By employing smart meters and developing the ability to retrieve electricity usage data at regular intervals – potentially several readings per hour – retailers could make billing a significant competitive differentiator. detailed usage information has already enabled value-added billing in the telecommunications world, and AMI can do likewise for billing electricity services. In time, electricity users will come to expect the same degree of flexible charging with their electricity bill that they already experience with their telephone bills, including, for example, prepaid and post-paid options, tariff in function of time, automated billing for house rental (vacation), family or group tariffs, budget tariffs and messaging.

MANAGING THE COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK

For utilities to leverage the communications network described above to meet business key requirements, they must intelligently manage that network’s facilities and services. This includes:

  • Configuration management. Provisioning services to ensure that underlying switching/routing and transport requirements are met.
  • Fault and performance management. Monitoring, correlating and isolating fault and performance data so that proactive, preventative and reactive corrective actions can be initiated.
  • Maintenance management. Planning of maintenance activities, including material management and logistics, and geographic information management.
  • Restoration management. Creating trouble tickets, dispatching and managing the workforce, and carrying out associated tracking and reporting.
  • Security management. Assuring the security of the infrastructure, managing access to authorized users, responding to security events, and identifying and remediating vulnerabilities per key security requirements such as NERC.

Utilities can integrate these capabilities into their existing network management infrastructures, or they can fully or partially outsource them to managed network service providers.

Figure 3 shows how key technologies are mapped to the architectural framework described previously. Being able to evolve into an intelligent utilities network in a cost-effective manner requires trusted support throughout planning, design, deployment, operations and maintenance.

CONCLUSION

Utilities can evolve their existing infrastructures to meet key SmartGridnet requirements by effectively leveraging a range of technologies and approaches. Through careful planning, designing, engineering and application of this technology, such firms may achieve the business objectives of SmartGridnet while protecting their current investments in infrastructure. Ultimately, by taking an evolutionary approach to SmartGridnet, utilities can maximize their ability to leverage the existing asset base as well as minimize capital and operations expenses.