Standards are pretty important when you think about it. They ensure the safety, quality and performance of the structures, products and processes we use every day – the houses we live in, the food we eat, the infrastructure we rely on. Done right, they can make our everyday lives easier, safer and healthier.
In business, having a standard to follow is like tapping into the distilled wisdom of a private pool of subject matter experts. It’s an agreed way of doing something that makes collaboration easier and has the power to increase productivity and innovation.
As you can tell, I’m a big fan of standards…and increasingly so. We all know the energy sector is undergoing radical transformation which calls for increased connectivity between devices, new technologies (such as clean energy technologies), control systems and IT data management systems. In my role at OMNETRIC Group, I am responsible for delivering smart grid integration and security solutions to our customers and you could say standards are pivotal to what I do.
As a company, we spend all of our time working out ways for our customers to get their operational (OT) systems talking to their IT systems to optimize performance and fine-tune control of the grid. Without understanding, leveraging, promoting and furthering standards, there’s limited interoperability, which fundamentally hinders improvements in grid efficiency and reliability.
I’d like to say that the energy industry has it all sewn up as far as standards are concerned, but there’s plenty still to be done. What’s more, new challenges are presenting themselves all the time, so it’s a moving target. The movement towards distributed energy resources (DERs) brings dispersed and unpredictable energy flows into play that must be harnessed. Unfortunately for utilities, legacy systems like SCADA 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.
Because open standards are so critical to what we do for our customers, we are heavily involved in industry-wide initiatives that promote interoperability and test open standards, such as the common information model (CIM). While CIM is one of the key starting points for standard setting in our industry, there is a multitude of other standards that we work with and contribute to.
The use of technologies like an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) for example, can simplify the exchange of information for applications and systems. Over the last two years, we were involved in NREL’s project INTGRATE in the US, a $6.5-million Department of Energy (DOE) grid modernization initiative. The DOE and industry partners have worked to discover how renewable energy systems and other clean energy technologies can be connected to a smart power grid in a “plug-and-play” manner.
Specifically, we demonstrated an innovative grid edge control communications and control platform using Siemens’ Microgrid Management System and an Open-Field Message Bus (OpenFMB) framework.
The outcome is that we can offer utilities enhanced integration with field devices, enabling more distributed intelligence. We see that grid-edge control as a critical part of managing a smarter, greener and more diverse energy system.
That said, standards are not the only requirement for effective IT/OT integration. Alongside, and closely interlinked with standards, there are three other factors, which we consider to be critical to the success of utilities looking to reap the rewards of a digital grid: architecture, culture and security.
The complexity of the new energy landscape demands an architecture that will accommodate complex, multi-directional, collaborative business processes. Getting the architecture right for effective IT/OT integration starts with defining a service oriented architecture based on vendor independent, pluggable and configurable solutions to comply with existing and future integration requirements.
The third of the four critical success factors is security. It’s no surprise that many utilities have deep concerns about exposing OT systems to the IT world. In opening up their grid operations to IT systems, utilities potentially run the risk of cyber-attack, which – worst case scenario – could bring performance to a standstill leaving business losses and a damaged reputation in its wake.
We advocate an approach that evaluates the risk and compares that to the potential value to be achieved. If it makes sense to push ahead, we recommend baking security into the core of the adopted solution. Trying to layer security on at the end is rarely effective.
Last, but not least, there’s the human angle. Getting IT and OT organizational silos to move in the same direction is not always easy. At OMNETRIC Group we have brought together power 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.
Written by Mayur Rao, Smart Grid Integration & Security Lead – Americas, OMNETRIC Group
If you found this article interesting, why not register for the IT/OT Integration Approaches for North American Utilities webinar on 24th May at 12PM EDT/5PM London.