Why It'S High Time For Transmission Operators To Set A Digitised Data Strategy – Smart Energy

Why it's high time for transmission operators to set a digitised data strategy – Smart Energy

Paul Frey, chief operating officer at Sharper Shape, highlights the increasing importance of a digitised data strategy (DDS) for transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities.
Long-term strategic initiatives often get repeatedly shunted to the backburner as immediate, day-to-day priorities take precedence. For transmission operators battling extreme weather events and walking what can feel like a commercial tight rope in terms of the balance sheet, those day-to-day priorities have been relentless. And there’s no let-up in sight with climate change making more frequent extreme weather events more likely.
However, there reaches a point when these long-term initiatives can be deferred no longer, and in the case of utilities establishing a digitized data strategy (DDS), we have reached that point. In fact, arguably the nonstop day-to-day firefighting of the last few years is precisely why we have reached that point.
Some transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities have already made great strides on this front, but for those that haven’t, it’s high time to set a DDS – both to head off gathering risks, and to take advantage of operational opportunities. Here are three reasons why – and a pointer on how – T&D utilities should set about doing so.
First: the push factors – the risks that must be managed or avoided. There are many categories of risk that an un- or underdeveloped DDS can expose a utility too, but none so important as the risk to life.
Any activity involving high voltage power involves an element of risk to life that must be managed, but that is doubly true for those utilities operating in regions exposed to more intense and frequent extreme weather events, such as wildfires. To be clear, utilities are not responsible for the weather, but they are responsible for the state of their assets.
Vegetation management, for example, is well-recognized as a critical activity for powerline owners in the context of rampant wildfires, where close proximity to dry vegetation is an ignition risk. For example, six of California’s 20 most destructive wildfires since 2015 were caused by powerlines. Other examples of where utility’s operations touch on risk to life and limb are safely repowering networks following public safety power shutoff (PSPS) events, or where lack of power creates danger, as was the case in the tragic Big Freeze suffered by Texas and the South Central US in 2021.
How does a DDS help manage these risks? That depends on the specific risk at play, but we can take vegetation management as an example. Vegetation management is a labor and time intensive process that traditionally involves powerline inspectors or subcontractors walking the line to identify problem spots, and then contracting an arborist company for so many cubic feet of vegetation removal. This is an expensive, slow and inexact method.
By contrast, a data-lead method involves strict prioritization of vegetation management hotspots based on previously harvested datapoints such as proximity to vegetation, species of tree, and proximity to residential property, for example. Ground crews can then be dispatched more effectively and efficiently, saving on costs while more exactly addressing the risk. However, note that this approach requires a few things to be effective: previously (routinely) collected data, coordination between teams and functions (powerline inspection and vegetation management), and between stakeholders (e.g. between the utility and one or more subcontractors) – all of which are facilitated by settled protocols for data storage, sharing and use – i.e. a DDS.
Loss of life is of course the worst-case scenario in this example, but it is easy to extrapolate other risks to the utility. Damage to third party property or the utility’s own assets could incur significant financial costs, and subsequent reputational damage could cause further harm down the track.
The year-on-year increase in such scenarios underlines the urgency here – it’s not a case of now or never, but certainly now more than ever.
It’s not all downside though – the flipside of the same coin is that an effective DDS can create opportunities for utilities, too.
Smart use of data can transform daily operations by forming the basis for any number of next-gen approaches, such as living digital twins and drone-based automated inspection regimes. This in turn can create savings for the bottom line through new efficiencies.
Of course, there is a distinction to be made between data-lead solutions and a DDS. It is perfectly possible to invest in a data-lead solution for a specific problem, and then in another for a different problem and so on. However, this risks both wasting money on repeat data collection exercises and overlapping functionality; missing out on potential synergies between different teams and departments focused on their own problems. A siloed approach is rarely the most strategic one, hence it is advisable for utilities to set their DDS before investing too much in any particular point solution.
For all the operational considerations for setting a DDS, one of the most compelling reasons might be that government and regulators may soon require utilities to do so. Of course, it is unlikely that laws will be written specifically requesting a DDS, but it may be that this is the practical outcome of requirements that are passed.
For example, recommendation 23 of the FERC-NERC report into the 2021 cold weather outages in Texas and the South Central US presses transmission operators to put in place automatic data update methods to help other stakeholders respond in a similar event. This may not be an outright call for a core data strategy, but it’s an example of a policy push for grid hardening and a recognition that a technology-lead approach – not just more boots on the ground – is the best way to do that. We can only expect more similar pressures to come as grid resiliency rises up the agenda.
A DDS can also be a boon when it comes to demonstrating compliance with existing regulations. For example, today utilities are asked to commit to a certain level of inspection and maintenance activity over a given timeframe. When that timeframe expires, the regulator knocks on the door and asks for evidence that these promises have been kept, triggering a scramble for documentation and certification stretching back years. By contrast, a utility with an effective DDS will be able to bring up a clear, transparent audit trail of activity with a few clicks of a mouse.
Having accepted that it should have a DDS, it can still be a daunting task for a utility to actually create one. A full guide on setting a DDS is beyond the scope of this article, however, there is one piece of advice particularly pertinent to the utility sector: trust in software as a service (SaaS).
There is a sticky idea in the utility sector that, because we are dealing with critical infrastructure, it is a matter of security and propriety that data and IT more generally must be handled solely in-house. However, while it is true that data should remain firmly under the utility’s ownership, it doesn’t follow that it needs to invest in self-built or even on-premise systems.
A SaaS approach offers a host of commercial benefits – it is faster to set-up, more easily scalable, more cost-effective and allows utilities to leverage software built by top tech talent – which is in short supply and extremely difficult (and expensive) to attract to the energy sector.
And, as of 2022, SaaS is often the more secure choice in terms of cyber and data security. For example, one of the biggest cloud hosting platforms is Amazon Web Services (AWS) – it is unlikely that any utility can match Amazon for spend or sophistication when it comes to cybersecurity. In fact, the NSA, DoD, and other mission critical security concerns use this infrastructure. The utility can retain control of and ownership of the data, but it can no longer be assumed that in-house and on-premise is the safest place for sensitive data to be. Utilities can stand to greatly simplify their journey in setting a DDS by embracing the power of SaaS – and for those that haven’t already, it’s high time they did so.
Paul Frey is vice president of government & industry relations at Sharper Shape.
Previously senior manager of operations at the Edison Electric Institute, Frey has over 30 years of engineering and management experience in the utility industry, starting at Baltimore Gas & Electric. 
He holds several US utility patents and has a Masters Degree in Engineering Administration from George Washington University and a Bachelors of Engineering Science Degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Johns Hopkins University. 
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