Breaking The Barriers to Better Integration For Utilities

In business, for as long as there’s been talk about integration, there have been consultants. Some might argue the chicken and egg the other ways around. Fact is that integration comes in lots of flavors – systems, teams, processes, to name but a few – and is generally pretty hard to do, hence the need and opportunity for consultants. For utilities, today, one of the most pressing integration needs consists in bringing together the IT and operations technology domains; essential to operating the grid business of tomorrow. As a consultant who grew up in the IT arena, but who has spent nearly five years now learning about the systems which underpin grid operations, this type of integration is of particular interest to me.

Most European TSOs and DSOs are actively engaging in IT/OT integration, but there is a wide difference in the progress that’s been made to date.  If you look at IDC Energy Insights research (2016) on the topic for example, you can see that across Europe more than 90 percent of the utilities they spoke to said that they have initiated IT/OT integration initiatives. However, only 46 percent of those interviewed said that basic initiatives like meter and analytics projects, field force apps, IoT pilots and GIS network modelling had been completed.

In my opinion, there are several factors holding utilities back.

  • The security brake
  • The interoperability gap
  • The cultural divide

The security brake? With reason, many utilities have deep concerns about exposing OT systems to the IT world.  In opening up their grid operations to IT systems, utilities are potentially exposing themselves, and the grid, to cyber-attack, which has the potential to degrade—even halt—performance, resulting in business losses and damage to reputation. However, in our work with utilities, we sometimes see situations where security fears hold utilities back, even where greater integration is the obvious answer.  As an example, many utilities think twice before attempting to integrate their distribution management system with their GIS systems, or before using smart meter data to improve outage management.

While it might make sense to “brake” and consider the security implications, that does not have to mean stalling completely.  What’s essential is evaluating the risk and comparing that to the potential value to be achieved.  Once the criticality of systems vs. the potential business results are understood, if the team decides to release the brake and move on, they should ensure that they bake security into the core of the adopted solution. It is all too easy to forget about security measures once the project is in-flight and try to throw them on top at the end.

For the interoperability point, IT/OT integration is primarily about making the data in network control (OT) and enterprise (IT) systems available to each other to optimize performance and fine-tune control of the grid.  Unfortunately for utilities, SCADA systems were not conceived or built for integration.  The more recently available grid management systems used by DSOs and TSOs do enable integration, but they are usually used in isolated environments.  Where integration does exist, it is old-fashioned point-to-point integration that has limited interoperability, is costly and complex to manage, and is not secure.  At OMNETRIC Group, we are involved in industry-wide initiatives that promote interoperability and open standards like the common information model (CIM). The usage of technologies like an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) can simplify the exchange of information for applications and systems.  An example of one of these initiatives is the NREL INTEGRATE project.  Recently completed, we worked to develop an open field message bus architecture for microgrid management.

Last, but not least, there’s the human effect. There are two main cultural influences at play that contribute to the resistance of operators to integrate IT/OT systems.  Firstly, utilities operate in a regulated culture where price has been a guiding principle for decades. Over the last ten years regulators have gradually shifted their attention away from price towards quality. This has obliged operators to invest more in managing outage, improving customer service and “greening” supply. Despite this shift, many operators have a hard time adjusting.

The second – and perhaps the most significant – cultural challenge for operators wanting to integrate IT and OT is getting organizational silos to integrate and move in the same direction.  At OMNETRIC Group we have brought together electrical engineers, IT specialists, data scientists and cybersecurity experts.  In our experience, aligning frames of reference, experience, language and objectives takes time, but the results are extremely powerful.

True to my consultant form, let’s close out by giving you some recommendations:

  1. Evaluate systems and software capabilities and work towards the definition of an integration stack that fosters interoperability (for example using CIM), and ensures long term value from integration investments.
  2. Start small and scale fast, but always begin with an enterprise-wide IT/OT roadmap. In the early phases of rollout, the roadmap will evolve as best practices and conclusions are drawn from multiple discrete pilots.
  3. Bring together a multi-disciplinary team with diverse competencies who speak the same language and strive to work across the silos of operations and information technology.
  4. Don’t let security fears hold back progress. Evaluate security risk on the basis of system criticality and business reward.
  5. Drive a shared understanding of impacts and priorities to inform a clearer definition of roles and responsibilities, as well as an IT/OT governance model.

By Edward Benning, Omnetric Group, Smart Grid Integration & Security Lead, EMEA On the 21st March, Omnetric Group will be presenting a complementary webinar entitled ‘Let’s Get Real, IT/OT Approaches’ to discuss this area in more detail. Please click here to register.

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