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Smart meter glitches prove to be inevitable step in the utility industry evolution

This author no longer works for DNV GL.

A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel describes the smart meter glitches (e.g., delayed financial benefits) that the City of Leesburg is experiencing with the back office integration of its Smart Grid rollout. Their small municipal utility recognized early on that resource constraints across city departments, especially IT, would necessitate outside assistance to install and maintain the necessary computer systems that extract and manage the data streaming from their 24,000 newly installed electric smart meters. Although they contracted with a large and capable vendor to manage the bulk of the IT changes, they are experiencing the growing pains that will unavoidably occur during the industry’s migration into the 21st century.

I won’t completely rehash the issue of how the electric industry has lagged telecom in evolutionary progress, but here is where it becomes particularly relevant: IT systems and data management. Telecom has successfully managed increasing amounts of data, especially with the continual expansion of fiber optics, digital networks, Internet traffic, and the mobile explosion beginning in the 1990’s.

Many legacy utility billing systems have been in use since before that time! Anyone who has integrated those legacy systems with current software platforms can tell you that all the patches and workarounds that have been put in place over the years to keep the systems running will rear their ugly heads during an upgrade. This is not an environment where everything is basically an outdated version of an MS Office app, or the conflict of Windows vs. Apple, either. Some are unique, decades-old mutations with performance limitations and/or P2P integrations that simply are not compatible any longer. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Consider the impact to the typical meter data stream processing.  An instant transition from receiving and processing one reading every month (producing a monthly bill) to processing between 700–3000 interval readings per month (received between 30-700 times per month). All those interval reads are then processed and used to feed both business and customer-facing systems—increasingly in near real time. Imagine balancing your checkbook if your employer switched from a monthly pay period to 15-minute pay periods and made electronic deposits to your bank account several times per day. Your old system of sitting down monthly, with a printed statement and your checkbook ledger might feel a bit inadequate.

Leesburg is the only one caught in the back office system quandary. The vendors, too, are learning new lessons during each implementation. As with legacy billing system, utility-specific regulatory, customer or business requirements precludes the possibility of a single cookie cutter system design or implementation. This can cause providers to experience resource constraints of their own. Many vendors estimate growth in the utility systems integration sector to approach 40% in the foreseeable future. Hiring and maintaining adequate, experienced staff to support that growth will continue to occur as this market matures.

Any utility, whether embarking on a Smart Grid project or looking to further leverage the value of existing Smart Grid infrastructure should consider securing an independent program management partner with broad, deep industry experience—who also knows where the pitfalls lurk and how to avoid them.  It’s an additional project expense that more than repays itself by decreasing rework and accelerating benefits realization.

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