Don't just think Nashville. Think Nirodha, too.

A quick look at smarter grids and more intelligent utilities

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine January/February 2009


PPL ELECTRIC UTILITIES IS A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF increasing intelligence about the grid through improved metering capabilities. Although smarter meters enabled data communication, PPL had to turn that data into intelligence and enable groups both inside and outside of the utility to acquire the knowledge they need to ensure reliable, affordable, efficient and sustainable energy. PPL is building a smarter grid, in fact you could say a ''smart grid,'' but most smart grid discussions inevitably lead to these questions:

  • How do we get to a smart grid?
  • When do we know we are there?
  • What is a smart grid again?

These are not easy questions. Many groups define the smart grid, but how can you tell when your utility has one? Better understanding this challenge requires an unusual, but useful comparison: Nashville, Tenn. and Nirodha - a state of mind in yoga. Let's say you are traveling to Nashville. In Nashville, you would see landmarks that you could only find in Nashville, such as the Grand Ole Opry, B.B. King's Blues Club and the BellSouth Tower. Smart grid landmarks, however, are harder to come by. Utilities can install smart meters and other smart sensors on their grid, but having these technologies does not necessarily mean they have arrived at a smart grid.

To add to the confusion, other ''smart grid'' components such as demand response, distribution automation and automated meter reading (AMR) have already been around for years.

Although such technologies can support a smarter grid, the smart grid is more than just acquiring certain technology landmarks. A smart grid also requires integrating both new and existing technologies and ultimately transforming business processes to enable better decisions about the grid's operation. So, although it is a nice place, you shouldn't just think Nashville when you think smart grid, think Nirodha. For those of you who aren't yoga enthusiasts, Nirodha is a state of mind in yoga in which you become more focused and aware of an object. In just the case of a utility, the object is primarily the transmission and distribution (T&D) network. As a utility becomes more aware and ultimately more knowledgeable about its network, the utility can. make better decisions about its operation.

Furthermore, as a company builds more knowledge about its grid, it develops not only a smarter grid, but also a more intelligent utility. We will discuss the difference between smart grid and intelligent utility in a moment, but first let's consider why utilities are interested in building this intelligence.


Regardless of today's turbulent times, utilities must continue providing customers with reliable, affordable, efficient and sustainable energy. Many issues - both today and ones that are on the horizon - are threatening utilities' ability to provide this sort of energy.

Some issues will require utilities to make investments in traditional infrastructure - for example, utilities will have to replace aging transformers and wires or build new transmission lines and generation plants to keep up with demand - but other issues will limit utilities' ability make these investments - such as the backlash against coal generation and the credit crunch. To continue providing the type of energy that consumers demand, utilities will have to consider other solutions that go beyond traditional investments.


Smart grid and intelligent utility can help utilities overcome these limitations by transforming business processes and technologies that support the grid's operation. The specific business process and technology changes will vary for each utility, so let's focus on the high-level definitions. The smart grid is transforming business processes and technology to improve T&D network automation, control and monitoring and to better connect consumers and utility companies, so utilities can continue to provide reliable, affordable, efficient and sustainable energy. Therefore, smart grid typically focuses on business process and technology changes in these areas (Figure 1):

  • Transmission
  • Distribution
  • Communications
  • Consumer connections - including metering, end-user devices and distributed generation

Focusing on just smart grid, however, often leaves out many people, devices and systems outside of T&D - even outside of the utility - that impact the grid's operation. An intelligent utility takes smart grid a step further by enabling groups both across and outside the company to acquire the knowledge they need in order to provide reliable, affordable, efficient and sustainable energy:

  • The enterprise - including it, finance, customer operations and executives
  • Generation/wholesale - including large-scale renewables
  • Consumers themselves
  • Other utilities and global participants


In terms of technology, a smarter grid and more intelligent utility do not always require a massive outlay of smart meters to get started. It can begin by simply better leveraging information from existing systems or better integrating existing technologies. These systems and technologies could include:

  • Energy management system (EMS)
  • Distribution management system (DMS)
  • Supervisory control and data acquisition (scada) system
  • Outage management system (OMS)
  • Geographic information system (GIS)
  • Work management system
  • Asset management system
  • Network design application (e.g., CAD)
  • Demand response program
  • AMR
  • Customer information system (CIS)
  • Enterprise resource management (ERM)

In terms of business process change, utilities need to first consider how their personnel and systems can more effectively use data to make better decisions about the grid's operation. They also need to consider what groups - whether IT, customer operations or generation - should be involved with making changes to these business processes. It may be overwhelming at first, but take a deep breath (hopefully, you remember your pranayama breathing techniques), relax and learn how other utilities, like PPL Electric Utilities, are finding success in transforming their companies into intelligent utilities.

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