Akin to telecommunications providers, utility service providers of all stripes — electricity, gas, water and waste — now face challenges, and opportunities, of a sort they haven’t had to deal with for decades. Increasing demand for utility services is putting increasing strains on old and aging utility grids, pushing utilities to invest in new infrastructure.
Governments have been opening up highly regulated utility markets to new competitors for a couple of decades now, with very mixed results. Coincidentally, technology push — particularly in the area of smart grids — and socio-political push, in the way of reducing carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and increasing efficiency, is prompting them to find ways of decoupling revenue and profits from the amount of power, water, or waste management they provide to consumers.
Managing Smart Grid Complexity
The fast-growing global market for smart grid technology has given rise to to a new breed of specialized information technology and service providers, including the likes of Itron, Echelon, Landis+Gyr, Silver Spring Networks, and Tendril. Realizing the market potential, a mix of much larger, well-established industrial/engineering and high-tech multinationals, including ABB, GE, Siemens, Schneider Electric, IBM, SAP, and Google have entered the fray.
So has Oracle, which yesterday announced the availability of Oracle Utilities Operational Device Management (OUODM), an information systems platform that “helps utilities manage the change, configuration and inventory of smart grid assets for improved operational efficiency.”
Based on open standards, Oracle says its new smart grid software platform is designed to manage the range of “smart devices” in utilities’ new distribution infrastructure. This includes smart “meters, access points or communications relays and communication components attached to various devices that are too complex for traditional asset management systems.”
“The addition of ‘smart devices’ into the utility infrastructure is changing business operations across the enterprise. Utilities have been challenged to manage these new operations efficiently as traditional asset management systems cannot handle the complexity,” explained Rodger Smith, senior vice president and general manager, Oracle Utilities.
“Oracle Utilities Operational Device Management helps manage the intricacy of smart devices with more speed, accuracy and cost savings, which will lead to greater operational efficiencies for utilities.”
Meeting the Utility Smart Grid Challenge
Skeptics and critics of smart grid systems development and deployments have pointed to security as a glaring, potentially disastrous, weakness. Installing and managing the servers, storage devices, networks, and information flows across smart grid systems is a new, complex, and significant challenge to utilities, as is regulatory compliance.
“New smart-grid microprocessor-based devices must be managed closely throughout their life cycle for configuration changes, firmware updates and security and compatibility issues,” Oracle notes. “Oracle Utilities Operational Device Management handles critical functions, such as managing and tracking updates and patches, as well as supporting governance and regulatory audits and smart grid Network Operations Center (NOC) processes.”
Moreover, though industry-wide standardization efforts have progressed; equipment, software, and telecoms compatibility and interoperability also number among the critical issues utility providers need to thoroughly assess in making smart grid investments.
Oracle’s Utilities Solution, which includes its new OUODM platform; Utilities database systems; and the Oracle Smart Grid Gateway seek to address these in an integrated manner, offering a range of software solutions that provide support for making smart grid technology investment decisions, managing deployments and day-to-day operations on through to taking care of customers and billing.
Oracle’s new smart grid platform comes with Vendor Adapters for Itron MV90, Landis+Gyr (with regional restrictions applying), Echelon, Sensus, and Silver Spring Networks. Generic Adapter Templates are also included.
Smart Grids + Renewable Energy = Carbon Emissions Reductions
The Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), in a study released in early 2010, estimated a smart electrical power grid could decrease annual electric energy use and utility sector carbon emissions at least 12 percent by 2030.
The US could avoid the equivalent of 442 million metric tons of carbon emissions by making full use of smart grids, according to the report. That’s equivalent to that of 66 typical coal power plants, enough electrical power for 70 million average US homes. “By making the grid smart, we make it more efficient and more accommodating of renewables, and we’re able to cut down on the amount of carbon we emit to generate the electricity we need,” PNNL research scientist Rob Pratt was quoted in PhysOrg’s report.
“This report suggests that we could substantially reduce emissions by deploying a smart grid. We wanted to show the additional benefits inherent in the smart grid’s potential contribution to the nation’s goal of mitigating climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of the electric power system.”
Utilities, with regulators’ consent, by and large, have control over the type and amount of investment they make in new grid infrastructure. Electric utilities have been investing large amounts in smart grid technology, installing smart meters, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and modern transmission and distribution lines. A big question mark remains on the demand-side of the market, however.
Demand-side grid management requires “buy-in” from consumers, and that, though it can be strongly influenced by utility demos, outreach and educational programs, in the end lies in the hands of consumers themselves.
I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.