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The Power Of IT

Technology to improve power companies' operations could help avert another blackout--but questions remain about the industry's commitment to IT

The Blackout of 2003 remains largely a case of cause unknown. What's not in doubt is that efforts to contain the emergency were hampered by communication lags among the electrical-generation and -transmission companies that form the vast Midwestern and Northeastern power grids. IT projects under way at some power companies aim to minimize the chances of a replay.

FirstEnergy Corp., the beleaguered Ohio utility that's being eyed as a possible source of the blackout, is in the midst of a major IT project designed to improve information flows. It's developing a portal to aggregate data derived from hundreds of off-the-shelf, homegrown, and legacy applications to give its managers a more complete picture of plant and transmission-line performance--information that could help them take steps to prevent system failures. That's a start. But a portal like the one regional transmission company PJM Interconnection LLC runs, which lets companies in its service area collect and share data in real time, is the direction the industry needs to go.

FirstEnergy's Eastlake, Ohio, power plant

FirstEnergy's Eastlake, Ohio, power plant
Such a system might have provided vital data two weeks ago, when the phone calls usually exchanged in an emergency among interdependent players on a power grid didn't happen. Officials at International Transmission Co., which operates high-voltage lines in parts of the affected area, say their technicians may have been able to contain the blackout had they known the magnitude of FirstEnergy's problems. "It would be nice to have an automatic doorbell that goes off," says Jim Cyrulewski, VP of operations at ITC. "Whether we could have taken more coordinated actions with FirstEnergy is hard to say. But if we had the information, some action could have been taken."

There's a long way to go before the industry reaches that level of information sharing. With its work-in-progress portal, dubbed FirstPlace and built with Plumtree Software Inc.'s technology, FirstEnergy is catching up with a handful of other power companies in terms of application integration for internal collaboration. When IT leaders at FirstEnergy began the project a few months ago, they identified the company's coal-fueled generating plants as some of the weak spots where information gaps were jeopardizing reliability. In addition to implementing some human-resources and accounting features on the portal, applications that now feed data through FirstPlace for use by managers at the fossil plants are Emerson Process Management Inc.'s CSI RBMware, which monitors floor vibrations and equipment performance, and OSI Software Inc.'s PI Historian, which records performance data from automated control systems.

Pairing data about various conditions with strong analytics can go a long way to improving system reliability at power generators, says Jill Feblowitz, an AMR Research analyst. "Energy companies need the right analytics to quickly determine whether there's a problem and initiate the proper maintenance approach," she says. Canadian energy company TransAlta Corp. has had success using a portal that serves up data from PI Historian in concert with repair-history and other equipment-performance data, Feblowitz says. Suncor Energy Inc. also uses portal software to develop a better real-time picture of operations.

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