In the last few years, the world has seen the energy & utilities business accelerate into a significant period of transformation as a result of the smart grid and related technologies. Today, with some early proponents leading the way, the industry is on the verge of a step-change improvement that some might even classify as a full-scale revolution. Utilities are viewed not only as being a critical link in solving the challenges we face related to climate change and the care of our planet’s energy resources, but they’re becoming enablers of growth and innovation – and even new products, services and jobs. Clearly the decisions the industry is making today around the world’s electricity networks will impact our lives for decades to come.
If the current economic environment has muted any enthusiasm for this transformation, it hasn’t been much. With the exception, perhaps, of plummeting oil prices temporarily providing some sense of calm in the sector, there are probably few people left who don’t believe the world needs to urgently address its clean, smart energy future. As of this writing, fledgling signs of an economic recovery are emerging, and along with it, increases in fossil fuel prices. As such, enthusiasm is growing over the debate about how countries will utilize billions in stimulus funding to enable the industry to achieve a new level of greatness.
There is a confluence of events helping us along this path of dramatic and beneficial change. IBM’s recent industry consumer survey (selected findings of which are featured in this publication in "Lighting the Way" by John Juliano) signals a future that is being shaped in part by a younger generation of digitally savvy people who care about – and are willing to participate in – our collective energy future. They willingly engage in more open communication with utility providers and tend to be better at understanding and controlling energy utilization.
As utilities instrument virtually all elements of the energy value chain from the power plant to the plug, they will improve service quality to these customers while reducing cost and improving reliability to a degree never before achievable. Customers engage because they see themselves as part of a larger movement to forestall the effects of climate change, or to battle price instability. This fully connected, instrumented energy ecosystem takes advantage of the data it collects, applying advanced analytics to enable real-time decisions on energy consumption. Some smart grid projects are already helping consumers save 10% of their bills, and reduce peak demand by 15%. Imagine the potential total savings when this is scaled to include companies, governments and educational institutions.
While positive new developments abound, they also are creating a highly complex environment, raising many difficult questions. For example, are families and businesses truly prepared to go on a "carbon diet" and will they stay on it? How will governments, with their increased stake in auto manufacturers, effectively and efficiently manage the transition toward PHEVs? Will industry players collaborate with one another to deal with stealth attacks on smart grids that are no longer the stuff of spy novels, but current realities we must face 24/7? How do we responsibly support the resurgence of nuclear-based power generation?
Matters of investment are also complex. Will there be sufficient public/private partnership to effectively stimulate investment in new businesses and models to profitably progress safe alternative energy forms such as solar, tidal, wind, geothermal and others? Will we have the "smarts" – and the financial commitment – to build more smarts into the reconstruction of ailing infrastructures?
Leading the Way
IBM has been a leading innovator in smart grid technology, significantly investing in energy and environmental programs designed to promote the use of intelligent energy worldwide. We created the Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition, a strategic relationship with a small group of select utilities from around the world to shape, accelerate and share in the development of the smart grid. With the goal to lead industry organizations to smart grid transformation, we actively lead and participate in a host of global organizations including the GridWise® Alliance, Gridwise Architecture Council, EPRI’s Intelligrid program, and the World Energy Council, among others. By coming together around a shared vision of a smarter grid, we have an unprecedented opportunity to reshape the energy industry and our economic future.
The IBM experts who engage in these groups – along with the thousands of other IBMers working in the industry – have contributed significant thinking to the industry’s progress, not the least of which is the creation of the Smart Grid Maturity Model (SGMM) which has been handed over to the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute (SEI) for ongoing governance, growth and evolution of the model. Furthermore, the World Energy Council (WEC) has become a channel for the global dissemination of the model among its worldwide network of member committees.
IBM’s own Intelligent Utility Network (IUN) solution enables a utility to instrument everything from the meter in the home to miles of power lines to the network itself. In fact, the IUN looks a lot more like the Internet than a traditional grid. It can be interconnected to thousands of power sources – including climate-friendly ones – and its instrumentation generates new data for analysis, insight and intelligence that can be applied for the benefit of businesses and consumers alike.
Our deep integration skills, leading-edge technology, partner ecosystem and business and regulatory expertise have earned us roles in more than 50 smart grid projects around the globe with showcase projects in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, Texas, Denmark and Malta (See "The Smart Grid in Malta" by Carlo Drago in this publication) to name just a few. IBM also has a role in seven out of the world’s 10 largest advanced meter management projects.
The IBM Solution Architecture for Energy (SAFE), is a specialized industry framework focused on the management, maintenance, and integration of a utility’s assets and information, inclusive of generation, transmission and distribution, and customer operations. This is complemented by a world-class solution portfolio based on the most comprehensive breadth of hardware, software, consulting services, and open standards-based IT infrastructure that can be customized to meet the needs of today’s energy and utilities enterprises around the globe.
These activities are augmented by the renowned IBM Research organization that engages in both industry-specific and cross-industry research that influences our clients’ progress. This includes new computing models to handle the proliferation of end-user devices, sensor and actuators, connecting them with powerful back-end systems. How powerful? In the past year IBM’s Roadrunner supercomputer broke the "petaflop" barrier – one thousand trillion calculations per second using standard chip sets. Combined with advanced analytics and new computing models like "clouds" we’re turning mountains of data into intelligence, making systems like the smart grid more efficient, reliable and adaptive – in a word, smarter.
IBM Research also conducts First-of-a-Kind research – or FOAKs – in partnership with our clients, turning promising research into market-ready products and services. And our Industry Solution Labs around the world give IBM clients the chance to discover how leading-edge technologies and innovative solutions can be assembled and proven to help solve real business problems. For example, we’re exploring how to turn millions of future electric vehicles into a distributed storage system, and we maintain a Center of Excellence for Nuclear Power to improve design, safety analysis, operation, and nuclear modeling / simulation processes.
IBM is excited to be at the forefront of this changing industry – and our changing world. And we’re honored to be working closely with our clients and business partners in helping to evolve a smarter planet.