Structure Group reveals six key trends (and how to prepare)



By Jesse Berst


As grid modernization has unfolded, it has been interesting to watch the growth of consulting companies. Small-to-midsize firms such as Kema (now DNV-GL), EnerNex and Bridge Energy have grown rapidly. Meanwhile, big firms such as Accenture and Cap Gemini have grown entire smart grid divisions.


The Structure Group has one of the most interesting success stories. While other firms chose to emphasize AMI or testing or procurement, Structure stressed operations and implementation. Now that so many utilities are pushing distribution automation as the Next Big Thing, Structure finds itself right in the sweet spot. It has helped to distinguish itself by taking people with a strong technical background and training them on project management and other consulting skills.


Given that Structure has been such a pioneer, I thought readers might like to know what they think is next. And what utilities should do about it. I chatted at length with Alex Lago, Vice President Generation, Transmission & Distribution and Rafael Ochoa, Smart Grid Segment Lead. They warned me about the following six trends that are now on the horizon.


Cybersecurity cautions

In November, 2013, FERC approved the North American Electric Reliability Corporation’s (NERC) Version 5 Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) Reliability Standards. "CIP 5 is very stringent," warns Lago. "The question is how to get your legacy equipment to comply."


Embedded systems vendors are responding fairly well to the challenge, he says. But there are still a lot of serial communications devices out there, which are notoriously hard to secure. As a result, many utilities are moving from serial to IP-based communications.


Another challenge. Most server-based products run Linux. Most clients run Windows. That requires utilities to deal with patching, updating and securing two systems. The good news. Lago expects the security techniques perfected at the transmission level to trickle down to distribution networks.

Managing multiple microgrids

Until now, most pilots have involved a single microgrid. The testing has investigated how to uncouple from and re-couple to the main grid.


Next up, says Structure, is the need to manage multiple microgrids. "How do you manage interconnected control areas," asks Ochoa. "How do you flow power from one to another. We have a whole bunch of challenges to figure out."


Some of the challenges relate to a utility's rights and obligations. Does it have monitoring and control rights over the microgrid? Will it remain connected to the microgrid during times of contingency? And then there are the operational challenges -- using a DMS (or ADMS) to manage multiple microgrids. And will semi-autonomous microgrids deliver the same levels of reliability we currently get from the "traditional" grid?


Distributed control versus centralized control

This year's DistribuTECH conference saw the collision of two opposing trends. The first was the introduction of several new Advanced Distribution Management Systems, which offer enhanced central control. The second was the introduction of numerous products and services that provide decentralized intelligence.


How will we resolve this clash? Rafael Ochoa predicts we'll see co-existence, "decentralized control with centralized oversight." He points out that utilities such as Xcel and Duke have lots of investment in centralized technology. They will want a blended approach that allows them to get value from those legacy systems.


Moving to an enterprise architecture

Most other sectors -- financial services, transportation, retailing -- have long since moved their IT systems to an enterprise architecture. Now this long-overdue transition is taking hold in the utility sector as well. Fortunately, our industry can take advantage of the best practices developed by those who've gone before. Structure cites Oklahoma Gas & Electric as an example of a utility that has successfully made the transition.


Jesse Berst is the founder and Chief Analyst of SGN and Chairman of the Smart Cities Council, an industry coalition.