Keeping The Lights On

Power utilities have spent millions on business technology in the hope that they can make last year's regional power outage the last of its kind. Here's what they've done so far and what still needs doing.

Martin Garvey, Contributor

August 6, 2004

4 Min Read

The industry also is working to improve security around generating plants and at key points along the transmission grid. "If we don't consider everything in the spectrum, we're not being diligent," says Lynn Costantini, CIO at the North American Electric Reliability Council.

Security against any type of threat is a top priority at Southern, which provides power to customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. "Terrorists are trying to hack the grid, but we face an even bigger problem from worms and viruses," says Becky Blalock, CIO and senior VP of information resources. Southern gets about 25,000 attacks per month, she says.

As leaders of the power industry look farther into the future, they envision something called the Smart Grid, sort of a self-healing, intelligent network that can anticipate problems and automatically make decisions in milliseconds. Such a system, even after the technology is mastered, likely would face years of regulatory debate and approvals, plus massive investment to upgrade computers, software, and switching systems.

More than a dozen companies are working to plan the Smart Grid. They've begun to outline an architecture and set software requirements to provide analysis and change management. "Smart Grid has been on our mind for a long time because customer needs change," says Bruce Germano, VP of retail services at the Long Island Power Authority. "Reliability needs are different, and they create the vision of the electric grid of the 21st century."

Germano envisions a grid that responds to power-demand changes in real time. To do that, the grid needs even more sensors so operators have more detailed information on the flow of electricity. "Today we command and control down to major distribution centers, but we can't tell down to the customer level and can't identify the cause of changing power levels," Germano says. The project could take five years or more.

One thing already changing is the relationship between the industry's business-technology and engineering staffs, which are working together more closely, Meta Group analyst Jill Flebowitz says. "There's always been separation between engineering groups and business-technology groups," she says. "Over the past year, utility engineers have relaxed the boundary of business-technology folk involvement."

That means business-technology managers are playing a greater role in designing the monitoring and management systems used by utilities, deploying real-time operating systems and applications, and finding ways to automate the business processes used to operate the transmission grid. "We grew up operating it all manually, but we don't want to do it that way today," says Julia Segars, CIO at Alabama Power, a Southern Co. utility. Segars works closely with Robin Hurst, head of transmission and distribution at the utility. Hurst says computer-based monitoring and management technology has made it easier to find flaws in the distribution system, which has opened a greater role for the IT department. "Together we maximize efficiency and balance each other," he says.

Whether these organizational changes, procedural improvements, and technology enhancements will prevent another massive blackout is hard to predict. Utility execs say they're taking all the necessary steps to keep the power flowing. But we may not know if they're right until the next heat wave hits.

Photograph by Taxi

Continue to the sidebar:
"The Grid: Aging Power Lines Need Upgrading"

About the Author(s)

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights