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Analysis | September 2013

Emerging role of IT in power distribution

There are multiple IT applications available in the market for power industry, but the critical decision is in ensuring the technology is integrated, says Jayant Sinha, as he describes how IT application should be implemented in distribution utilities.

In the present business environment, utilities have to re-engineer and automate their business processes for sustainable growth and survival. There is a growing trend among utilities to adopt newer and enabling technologies to meet the myriad challenges such as reduction of aggregate technical and commercial losses, improving metering, billing and collection efficiency, increasing business process effectiveness, energy audit and accounting and enhancing customer services.

The adoption of latest and best-of-breed technology is essential to fulfill the above objectives and therefore, information technology is perceived as the principal enabler to spearhead our country's agenda of power distribution reforms, despite the challenges faced due to the slow absorption of new technologies.

Challenges of IT in Power Distribution
There is a plethora of IT options available in the market today, but there are also challenges in selecting the most appropriate technology matching with the business requirements, at the right time for the right set of applications, within the budgetary constraints. The selection of IT systems, software and applications should therefore meet the long-term strategic and business continuity objectives.

The following factors are critical in any utility IT implementation:

Adoption of standards-based, open architecture and adaptive communication network Consistent infrastructure for data collaboration, communication and interoperability Authentication and role-based access to the network Robust and scalable system architecture to support large volume of transactions Web-based, multi-tier architecture for ease of deployment and managing business rules Platform-independent application components for easy migration to new platforms Disaster recovery and business continuity planning

Adoption of open architecture and adaptive communication network
For implementing any hardware-or software-based solutions for the enterprise, it is extremely important and critical to have a robust, scalable, adaptive and open systems computing and communication architecture. Going by the information systems lifecycle, emergence of new technologies and technical obsolescence, the data network infrastructure, around which the enterprise applications are built, survives the longest. Therefore, network infrastructure should be built around standards-based technology, conforming to ISO/IEC 11801 and EIA/TIA 568B framework.

Data collaboration, communication and interoperability
The global best practices approach in applications development is to have a modular design, integrating various applications and accessible through a common interface or 'dashboard', with secured access control, multi-level user permissions and audit trail. The enterprise software 'dashboard' is the gateway to various integrated business applications automated meter reading, data logging, billing, collection and customer services.

Authentication and Role-based access to the network
The IT system should be able to centrally manage user accounts and authorisations through active directory services, assign user roles and access settings. It should be able to store directory data and manage communication between users and domains, including user logon processes, authentication and audit trails of users. The system should thus provide a centralised way of managing credentials and allowing only legitimate users to access to devices, applications and data, in compliance with ISO/IEC 27001 standards.

Robust and scalable system architecture
The choice of hardware platform, OS, database and front-end tools would depend upon the type and volume of transactions. Robust and scalable system architecture should support future expansion, role-based authentication, secured databases, large volume of transactions, data backups and disaster recovery measures.

Web-based, multi-tier architecture for ease of deployment
In software engineering, multi-tier architecture (also referred to as N-tier architecture) is a web-based architecture in which presentation, application and data management functions are logically separated. For example, an application that uses middleware to service data requests between a user and a database employs multi-tier architecture. By segregating an application into tiers, developers acquire the option of modifying or adding a specific layer, instead of reworking the entire application, thus offering flexibility and ease of deployment.

Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Planning
Automated data backups are essential for the protection of vital data and their recovery during catastrophic failure. Apart from hot incremental backups, it is essential to take cold backups of the entire database and applications. For mission-critical applications, it is better to have separate database and application servers. Clustering solution at both OS level and database level is recommended, along with RAID support for data redundancy. The integration of servers, RAID storage and backup devices through fibre channel architecture enhances efficiency and performance. Cross backups across multiple servers, preferably at remote locations, are healthy business practice. Many installations now provide for a dedicated disaster recovery server, with data replication facility.

Role of emerging technologies
The gap in IT adoption globally and in the Indian power sector is apparent. Globally IT is being used to enable operations at a transaction level thus providing advantages like inbuilt process controls, workflow enabled transactions, single point of data capture and support for timely strategic decision making. On the other hand, in India, the core operations are still manual and therefore face issues like ad-hoc decision making, poor data quality, delay in decision making and under-utilisation of IT investments.

Therefore, IT has to be selectively adopted as a business strategy to improve commercial and operational performance. The need is to develop a synergy between IT and the Indian power sector and emerging technologies can play a defining the role in profitability and quality of services. Some of the key technologies being employed in the Indian power sector and these are indicative only, are described below:

Geographical Information System (GIS)
GIS can be applied for a host of utility applications - development of electrical network maps, consumer indexing and mapping, asset management, outage management, customer services, electrical network analysis and energy audit. GPS equipment are used to develop a geo-referenced land base map on which electrical network is projected, which helps in managing network assets, their maintenance, mapping consumers to their source of supply and conducting energy audit. Moreover, integrating GIS with network analysis application, various analytical studies are possible like load flow analysis, short circuit analysis, technical loss calculations and load planning. .

Meter Data Management System
Meter Data Management System is responsible for capturing, processing and maintaining utility metering data for billing, energy audit and MIS. It automates the meter management processes and performs a series of user-defined checks based on industry-standard validation, editing, and estimation (VEE) rules. These rules allow correction of invalid data and also account for any missing data. The system maintains the meter identities, billing parameters, consumer profile and load survey data. It also provides various data estimation and interpolation techniques for energy loss calculations, energy audit and decision-making to optimise system loading and energy usage pattern. The system also provides for various MIS reports and historical analysis in easy-to-understand graphical format.

Identity and Access Management System
With the rollout of multiple, integrated utility applications, it becomes a necessity to secure the critical databases and managing various users and applications centrally by granting them access rights and privileges based on their roles. The Identity and Access Management System utilised three techniques authentication, authorisation and accounting. Authentication provides an identity to a network, application or resource through a variety of mechanisms such as user ID and password-based logins, smart cards and public-key certificates. Authorisation occurs after authentication and uses attributes or entitlements associated with the digital identity to determine what resources it can access. Accounting helps track the user trails by maintaining a history of user logs with time stamps containing information on system resources that were accessed and nature of activities performed, for audit purposes at regular intervals, as decided by the organisational IT policy.

IVRS-based customer call centre
The IVRS-based system provides a direct, automated interface to the electricity consumers and aimed at improving customer services and staff responsiveness to customer complaints related to electricity supply and billing. The call center addresses consumer complaints ranging from no power, billing, payment-related or connection-related. In the generally a round-the-clock facility offered to electrical consumers, the complainant logs the call through interactive voice guidance system to access information on bill-related or supply-related matters, while the respective substations track down electrical complaints and take corrective actions.

Disaster recovery and Business continuity planning
At the macro level, there is the concept of the entire data center being replicated at a remote disaster recovery (DR) site. In fact, the DR Center is the exact replica of the DC in terms of hardware, software, storage, network and applications. There is also a network level redundancy with the provision of two different network bandwidth service providers (NBSP) one primary and the other secondary - connecting both DC and DR through separate MPLS cloud. In the event of failure of primary network, the operation switches to the secondary service provider without affecting normal operation. There is a link load balancer to monitor and balance the traffic on each MPLS cloud, and global site selector for network switching from one NBSP to the other. Both DC and DR also have power supply failover redundancy through high-speed static switching to ensure uninterrupted supply.

At the micro level, the database and application servers are configured in a high availability cluster mode. For each application module, there is a provision of two database and two application servers in a cluster solution, with failover redundancy. High availability is further ensured through server load balancer (SLB) for optimum performance. At the network level, routing and switching redundancies have to be built into the architecture. Similarly, the storage area network (SAN) solution has to be designed for system redundancy and system fault tolerance. All the remote sites and offices may also be connected with network failover redundancy.

Integration of business and IT strategy
Business process automation should aim at data capture at source to reduce transaction time, enable built-in process controls, enables audit trail, and provide appropriate and reliable information for decision support. Seamless business process integration accelerates transactions and optimises sharing of information across business processes. The global IT market for the power distribution sector provides a wide range of technologies and solutions. These solutions address the entire business value chain in power distribution from setting up distribution network and service connection to distribution load management, delivery of power and customer services.

Therefore, IT investments and implementation should be driven through a structured and comprehensive IT strategy, aligned with the business goals. The interfaces and integration between different software applications should be well-defined. A synergy should be established to maximize benefits from IT investments to best serve the business needs and effectiveness of IT investments should be monitored on an on-going basis.

The author is Associate Vice President, Head(Power/ IT) at Spanco Ltd, which is engaged in IT implementation and system integration projects in power utilities, encompassing ERP, GIS, AMI, SCADA, energy audit and smart grid.

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