The average big electric utility is a sprawling network that is buzzing with energy but contains surprisingly little data about that energy. Managers at utilities can’t “see” very deep into the thousands of substations and relay units that make up the electrical grid. Some utilities still learn about a neighborhood electrical outage not because it shows up on any of their sophisticated monitoring equipment, but because customers call them on the phone and complain that the power’s out.
This paucity of real-time information is one of the challenges that utility companies and IT vendors are addressing with a modernization effort known as the “smart grid.” Once utilities and consumers have finer-grained information about power use, both the supply of power and the demand for it can be managed more efficiently. For instance, consumers could be guided to move some electricity consumption to off-peak hours, reducing the need for dirtier and more expensive power plants to be activated at peak hours.
But before this can happen on a widespread basis, the utilities need to prepare for an onslaught of data—as other industries have done. The challenge of upgrading IT systems accordingly is one of the reasons the smart grid is “in its infancy,” says Donald Kintner Jr., a spokesman for the utility-sponsored Electric Power Research Institute.
“What energy companies are about to experience isn’t simply a doubling or tripling of the amount of data they will be getting,” says Jeff Taft, who works on smart-grid efforts at Cisco Systems, the networking company. “Instead, it’s going to be an increase of multiple orders of magnitude. The industry knows this and is slowly making the transition. But energy is one of those areas where you can’t just rip everything out and start all over.”
An additional challenge for utility companies is that they run their central control operations on a mix of legacy computer systems, most of which can’t communicate with each other.
“I’ve been in control rooms where operators need to sit in chairs and swivel between six different monitors to keep everything running,” says Glenn Booth, head of marketing at Green Energy, which provides next-generation grid management software. “We’re talking about our national power grid here, and that’s just not the way we should be running things.”
It’s relatively simple to equip a home with a “smart meter” that can generate second-by-second data on power use in the house. But because most utilities simply don’t have the computer systems to transmit or store this data, those that have already installed smart meters generally “poll” the individual meters just once a day, lest they be overwhelmed with data they can’t handle.
Pacific Gas & Electric, the main utility in Northern California, has smart meters in 80 percent of the homes it serves and expects to have them in all homes by next year. But to make full use of the new data, says a PG&E spokesman, Greg Snapper, the company will need “complex event-processing engines” that it is still in the process of developing.