January 23, 2017
Optimizing asset management in the new world of distribution
By: Stephanie Jamison

In a previous blog on digital enablers in energy distribution, we pinpointed business areas where we believe digital could deliver the greatest benefits. In this post, I want to take a closer look at implications into one of the most important of those business areas—asset management.

Utilities are already focusing on what the future grid means for managing their assets. How strong a focus this is becoming was made clear to me during a client workshop in Europe, on the topic of the future of the distribution service operator (DSO). During that session, my team and I fielded many questions about how digital could enable the next-generation grid.

In terms of asset management, these questions led to a discussion about the need to bring operational insights into the planning approach—an imperative driven by two factors. The first factor is the increasing penetration of distributed energy resources (DER) across the grid, especially customer-installed solar PV. The second factor is the potential impact of increasing DER on grid stability.

In combination, these two developments will disrupt traditional planning—requiring companies to move to an optimized planning approach. The key to achieving this lies in integrating data of different latencies for short, medium and long-term planning decisions—data from systems and processes that have historically operated in silos. The need to integrate this diverse data reflects the fact that multiple factors drive planning decisions, not least the condition and health of assets in near real time: not necessarily the true real time needed for network operations, but perhaps information from the previous night or earlier that same morning.

To ensure these decisions are optimized as much as possible, utilities also should take into account the changing nature of power demand and delivery. As customers’ behavior continues to evolve, so does the way they consume electricity. This not only disrupts the usual supply-demand picture, but radically alters the power factor characteristics of the distribution network. The resulting rising complexity of grid operations inevitably has knock-on effects for asset management.

So, what does all this mean for the grid and its assets? Two key questions. First: Is the grid up to scratch in terms of being able to capture the necessary data from various systems? If not, then grid modernization is on the agenda. And second: If (or when) the necessary data is available, does the utility have the capabilities needed to analyze, interpret and make insight-driven decisions based on it?

If grid modernization is needed, the potential investment may seem daunting. But modernization doesn’t happen all at once. If a utility’s grid and assets do not currently have the installed sensors required to collect all the information it needs, it does not immediately need to invest in a complete, fully-monitored grid. Instead it could start with an interim approach, such as having field workers capture asset health information using hand-held devices and focusing on critical assets or circuits, moving on later to a comprehensive rollout of asset-connected sensors.

As utilities tackle the shift toward using technologies that integrate IT and OT information and provide asset health information, they will uncover many point solutions to solve specific near-term problems. But while these targeted solutions will do the job they are designed for, their effect could also be to create yet another silo. So rather than spending time evaluating a series of point solutions, a more effective option may be to go straight to using technology founded on an extensible platform. However, this is not just a systems challenge¾the organizational, cultural and skill barriers are at least as daunting and need to be overcome in tandem.

The message is clear. As utilities work out their future strategies for asset management, there are key questions to answer and decisions to make around grid modernization, supporting and enabling technology (platforms)and the necessary analytics on multi-latency data. But whatever route utilities choose, the end point is identical and non-optional. Breaking down the silos between asset management and operations is necessary to thrive in the new world of energy distribution.

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