Natural disasters, hackers, and cybercriminals are all potential sources of disruption.

Martin Garvey, Contributor

September 16, 2005

9 Min Read

InformationWeek 500 - AutomotiveFor electric utilities, there's nothing more important than ensuring the reliable delivery of power. The biggest threat to that is Mother Nature, as Hurricane Katrina has shown. But cybercriminals also threaten, and no utility CIO wants to be the first to let a worm, virus, or intruder take down the power grid. That has forced IT and operations staffs at utilities to work together more closely than ever before.

Traditionally, operations takes care of power generation, distribution, and transmission, while IT manages computers and other automated systems. But the lines between the two are blurring. More of the work the operations staff does now relies on IT systems. Centralized, consolidated IT-management systems ensure better preventative maintenance, and IT-generated data on power generation and distribution systems improves reliability. As recently as two years ago, "each system in the power plants was its own island," says John Cupparo, CIO at PacifiCorp. "This year, IT is playing a big role with safety systems that track and identify what's in service or out of service."


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At Southern Co., IT systems help reduce downtime. The goal is less than 3% downtime at power plants; Southern this year has seen downtime of 1.2%. Software in the electric plants "monitors all the equipment generating electricity, and if a valve vibrates too much, the operators can take it down and service it," says Becky Blalock, senior VP and CIO. "Before, we hoped a maintenance engineer could catch it."

Another piece of software helps Southern deal with the hurricanes and storms that batter the area it serves around the Gulf of Mexico. Before Katrina hit, Southern transferred crews from Georgia to Alabama and Mississippi. Integrated weather and control systems let Southern track outages. And after the storm, crews moved into preset staging areas to start getting power restored. IT provided valuable weather and the power grid data, and it helped coordinate dispatching of crews. The utility's telecommunications arm used satellites to get back up right after the storm (see "Alabama Powers Up," Sept. 5, p. 14 and "Satellites Key In Storm Recovery And Merger," p. 26). An application called T Flash from the Electric Power Research Institute, when used in conjunction with maps of transmission lines, can pinpoint the location of problems caused by lightning strikes and guide trucks to downed lines. "Within an hour, we know exactly where the lightning hit," Blalock says.

The maps and dispatching applications also help get service personnel to the right location quickly to deal with other problems. And other IT systems let the utility easily reroute power around downed lines.

Xcel Energy is testing an electric meter that will determine whether a problem is in its transmission lines or inside a customer's house, CIO Ray Gogel says. It also alerts the utility when devices and lines are about to fail. "In prototype we have meters alerting us just before an outage, so we beat a customer call by a couple of minutes," he says. In the future, "we want to get the information to the people on the pole and cut down on diagnostics time."

Operations and repair staff have all the tools they need in their trucks, Gogel says. IT's role is to help them get to the repair site faster and safer and provide as much data as possible. That kind of partnering and information sharing can change the way the industry operates. Says Gogel, "I see an industry renaissance around new information."


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Data: InformationWeek Research

Illustration By Paul Watson

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  Ameren Corp. * Calpine Corp.   Centerpoint Energy Inc.   Cinergy Corp.   Consolidated Edison Inc.   Constellation NewEnergy Inc.   DTE Energy Co. * Edison International   Entergy Corp. * Exelon Corp. * Great Plains Energy Inc.   Midamerican Energy Holding Co.   Mirant Corp.   Occidental Petroleum Corp.   Pacific Gas & Electricy Co. * PacifiCorp   Peoples Energy   Pinnancle West Capital Corp.   Progress Energy Inc.   Southern Co.   Suburban Propane Partners LP * Tennessee Valley Authority   TransAlta   Unocal Corp. * Xcel Energy Inc.
* denotes a top 100 company

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