It’s 3 a.m. in Denver. Hotels across the city are full. And me, trying to check into an overbooked hotel, find out that there really is no room available. So I venture out into the darkness with my cell phone and start looking for a place to spend the remainder of the night. What does this have to do with utilities? As my colleague Marlon Vogt might say, “Wait for it…”
I was in Denver to attend a RMEL conference on Transmission Operations and Maintenance. RMEL conferences are always excellent, with a great balance of operators, vendors and consultants. The environment is one of mutual purpose, which is to advance and share knowledge on keeping our electric grids running and operating with the consistency customers expect. There were a number of topics presented, and there is usually a consistent theme that arises. One that grabbed my attention, and which is becoming prevalent, is the topic of big data and security. Over the years there have been great advancements in utility protection and controls, as well as communications methods to transport this vital data.
It seems as if there has been more progress in this field in the last five years than ever before. Further, not only are we communicating with our assets differently, we are communicating with our employees and customers differently. One customer relations method that comes to mind is the use of Facebook and Twitter, which are used to tell customers about critical happenings such as outages.Specific to utility operations, employee communication and job management have increasingly moved to digital for ease and efficiency.
One presentation at the conference was about a mobile application developed by one utility which allowed the transfer of field data and Human Performance Reliability (HPR) metrics. This not only allowed the information to become available sooner, it allowed the management team to look at the HPR data and cut out unnecessary inefficiencies in employee assignments. This remote communication allows utilities to run more efficiently, ultimately cutting waste and allowing for a focus on cost-savings and hopefully lower rates.
But we do need to be aware, there is a cautionary tale as this remote and digital communication comes with a risk. It’s a managed risk that no one can avoid, and there are numerous stories about organizations being infiltrated by those who are looking to create mischief or do harm. One recent incident in particular that sticks out in my mind is the theft of government employee digital records. The common question that appears to be lingering is how to deal with the large amount of big data and how we keep it safe and secure. And of course there are always those looking for ways to crack into our utility systems.
We are entering a new world where we ask our sometimes stretched IT departments to not only manage our VOIP and email, but also manage and safeguard our operational data. This ever expand set of requirements driven by the rapid change in Technology adoption can easily overwhelm the most formidable of teams.
Recently our team members have been responding to more and more client inquiries to develop a solution based process by leveraging existing expertise in the engineering power community and the information technology community by helping to combine some systems to improve efficiencies while maintaining strict operational system separation to meet security and regulatory requirements.
During a recent conversation, one colleague mentioned, “The IT world understands the methods and means and it is up to us to figure out how to apply this at a utility scale and merge it with utility requirements”. In short, we’re going beyond IT and telecom issues. These are hybrid IT/utility solutions that need to be applied and operated to maintain the reliability expected of our industry.
So to get back to the search for the hotel room, I accomplished what might have been considered an impossible task by using my remote my cell phone. In a sleep deprived state, it provided the means to book a room as opposed to driving toward every neon-lit hotel sign to find the closest available room. That’s a good thing, considering my driving skills and aggravation factor were not trending in the right directions with every failed stop.
Not unlike the process for effectively searching for a hotel room, we as an industry can stick to older, traditional methods and in essence wreck a reasonable night’s sleep. Or we can adapt, developing new methods and means to quickly find a reliable solution, which in my case, meant a La Quinta Inn on the other side of town.