Infrastructure Week 2017: Keys to Digital Grid Strategy

May 18, 2017 9:00 AM ET

At the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are relying heavily on the impacts of a more digital grid. The previous revolutions had significant impacts on society – introducing steam, electricity and computing, but none that were so closely intertwined with technology.

Infrastructure Week allows us to reflect on the modernization needed to drive the new digital grid. A comprehensive view of the infrastructure elements needed to create a more efficient and sustainable energy landscape should include communications networks and embedded computing. Utilities, technology vendors and community leaders will need to work in collaboration to ensure all elements are considered for the digital grid to thrive.

When developing an optimal grid modernization strategy, three standards can be used to steer understanding: systems thinking, managing complexity and service orientation.

Systems Thinking: Systems thinking, based on information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) convergence, views the connections in a system as the true driver of value. In a modern grid, the objective of the system is not dependent on the parts it is comprised of, rather what those parts can achieve collectively. The convergence of IT and OT is an indisputable facet of the digital grid, and the bridge to systems thinking.

Systems thinking can be exemplified in smart grid investments such as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). According to survey results from the 2017 Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility Report, smart meters still represent 75 percent of use cases for grid modernization. Creating the two-way power digital grid will also require investments in transmission and distribution automation as well as cybersecurity protection. Integrating these technologies to create a multiway power and information flow will allow utilities to gain operational flexibility and scale grid operations for greater reliability.

Managing Complexity: Digital power distribution systems produce data that can be overwhelming to interpret meaningfully. Managing the complexity of this data to drive intelligent business and operational decisions are essential to the grid’s success. Software platforms that can analyze and consolidate the plethora of data points and tie in mapping can help operators visualize data to inform asset management.

Service Orientation: A new value stream emerging from the digital grid model is service-oriented architecture. Service orientation aligns software structure to the business model, from governance to policy. Services are the capitalization of the other two paradigms and provide the basis for the valuation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and our digital grid.

While these components will be integral to the success of the modern digital grid, it’s also important not to overlook the necessary communications and network infrastructure that will enable new technology implementation. Reliable Internet Protocol (IP) data networks will support systems thinking, data management and service oriented business models for more effective electric service delivery. Taking all these factors into consideration in holistic master planning will ensure a streamlined entry to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its value to the modern power grid. 

Edward Sutton
Black & Veatch