Strategies for Success in Building Smarter Grids

H. Christine Richards | Jun 25, 2009

For the current issue of Intelligent Utility magazine, H. Christine Richards visited CenterPoint Energy and met with a number of the people involved in the company's move from smart grid pilot to deployment. Here, she discusses key strategies for success.

For CenterPoint Energy personnel, company commitment to the journey helped them stay on track with their project. Of course, each utility is different, so I chatted with a few folks from KEMA about how to take CenterPoint Energy's lessons to the next level.

According to KEMA, the key thing to remember for building a smarter grid and a more intelligent utility is that "it is not an event," said Ron Chebra, director, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) practice. "It's a transformation. It is a new way of doing business, and achieving the benefits requires a change of process, a change of functionality, and a change of people's attitudes about the status quo."

Differences Between Projects

Even though definitions of a smarter grid vary, when looking at these projects and thinking about them in terms of an intelligent utility, there are some key differences. First -- from electric vehicles to meter data management systems to communications networks -- there are a lot of new technologies in these projects. "The technologies we're dealing with are still being developed as we go through the process of determining what utilities want in terms of functionality and performance," said Rob Wilhite, senior vice president, intelligent networks and communications. "We're asking an industry to be able to transform itself, but yet we've not installed a lot of these devices on a large-scale."

These new technologies also require new capabilities in the utility. For example, "the two-way communications infrastructure that we're calling for in smart grid architecture is new to most utilities," said Wilhite. "Utilities don't always have -- in large numbers at least -- people with telecommunications skills that can provide the operations and maintenance of those kinds of systems."

Second, it is not just about new technology -- utilities can certainly leverage existing technologies, too -- but these projects now impact customers and the utility on a different scale than previous efforts. "If I'm putting in a power plant or a substation, yes, I do impact customers," said Chebra. "But now, I'm going to be visiting every customer and bringing new features and functionality to every customer. That is a radical difference from most projects."

Mark Burke, director, telecommunications, added that "typically when a substation project is planned, just transmission and project management gets involved, but smart grid efforts involve the entire enterprise in different ways. Different business units within the utility have different benefits and essentially risks associated with smart grid. That's unique. So, utilities sometimes have difficulty grappling with such comprehensive types of effort."

Long Timelines and Losing Momentum

A five- to ten-year -- or more -- journey is what most utilities face when they're talking smart grid. To maintain momentum during this journey, "you must have executive alignment throughout the enterprise," Wilhite said. "Everybody needs to be on the same page relative to what they want to do and the benefits they want to achieve."

"In order to make it a way of life, you really have to have an organization that is structured to champion this," noted Chebra. "It can't be a part-time job by some people. It's got to be a job for life."

"If the organization isn't behind it, and the benefits and responsibilities aren't properly aligned within the organization, implementation can stumble, and that can hold up the progress of the project," Burke said.

Keep Momentum Moving

Even though the journey toward a smarter grid and a more intelligent utility will have setbacks and challenges, utilities can keep the momentum going. "Every project is going to have its bumps in the road, just as every relationship has its bumps in the road. What keeps a project and a relationship alive is the commitment. It's not a fleeting situation. It's not just an infatuation. It is a commitment to make it work and that will keep projects going," Chebra said.

"With each pitfall, there needs to be alternative paths or alternative actions that need to take place should they reach a point where, for instance, the regulatory process takes longer than anticipated," said Wilhite.

Key Strategy Takeaways

Why smart grid projects differ

  • Employ developing technologies

  • Touch every customer
  • Impact many business units
  • Require new skill sets
  • Why projects lose momentum

    • Lack executive alignment and champion

  • Not enough resources
  • Benefits not aligned
  • Hit pitfalls unprepared
  • How to keep momentum going

    • Risk analysis on pitfalls

  • Plans to deal with pitfalls
  • Executive commitment
  • Good external relations
  • Technical integrity
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    Intelligent Utility magazine is the new, thought-leading publication on how to successfully deliver information-enabled energy. This article originally appeared in the May/June 2009 issue.

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