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In May of this year, GE Energy wrapped up its first round of Voice-of-Customer (VOC) sessions aimed specifically at Smart Grid. The purpose of the sessions were to engage our customers in discussions around Smart Grid and the technology, applications, and solutions that they perceive they will need to meet the unique demands Smart Grid is placing upon the utility. VOCs were held in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, India, Singapore, and Australia and were attended by more than 400 people representing more than 50 utilities.

VOC

What is a VOC?

The VOC sessions were designed to serve two main purposes. First, they gave GE a venue to present its early Smart Grid product and technology plans. This included a review of any assumptions made during the planning process, review of major Smart Grid drivers or requirements, and a discussion of system interdependencies. Most importantly, however, the VOCs gave the attendees an early look into GE’s product planning cycle and a chance to comment, critique, and adjust those plans “in real time”. The feedback received was invaluable, and many of the early assumptions were validated but an interesting number of new requirements were added as well, including more than a few surprises.

WEDO defined

At the VOC hosted by Austin Energy in Austin, Texas, a new term was introduced: Workforce and Engineering Design Optimization (this mouthful was quickly reduced to WEDO). WEDO was a concept based largely on the belief that Smart Grid would transform not only the way utilities monitor and operate their T&D network but also the way the future Grid will be designed, extended, and maintained. This would include not only the physical network – the wires and devices – but also the personnel charged with the care and feeding of this new grid.

At the heart of WEDO is GE Energy’s Smallworld™ GIS core spatial technology for the management of Smart Grid’s extensive power and communications infrastructure. Equally important, it was proposed, was GE’s mobile computing technology acquired in 2008 from MapFrame Corporation combined with GE’s crew management and scheduling solutions. Integration between these components as well as other modules of GE Energy’s Smart Grid portfolio was seen as a key requirement and the element that would ultimately lead to a truly optimized solution.

Hypothesis test

GE staff set out to test several key hypotheses during the VOCs. First was the belief that Smart Meter and AMI projects – both current and stimulus-funded – would very quickly reveal that many utilities would need a sophisticated geospatial asset management application to record and maintain the new communications infrastructure that is core to any AMI project. In many cases the design and management of a complex communication network is foreign to the utility T&D engineer. While much of Smart Grid’s communications infrastructure is similar to communications networks that have been designed and deployed for years by telecommunications and media companies, there are new aspects unique to Smart Grid such as RF Mesh for AMI and Broadband-over-Powerline (BPL) technologies. This new technology that comes with a rapidly deployed AMI project would require new business processes, change management, and, ultimately, new network planning systems such as WEDO.

The second hypothesis tested was the belief that the physical design of the T&D network would change significantly over time due to the deployment of Smart Grid technologies. Both large- and small-scale renewable generation was seen as one element that would change the makeup of both the transmission and distribution networks. Several attendees stated that consumer-owned photovoltaics systems were being deployed at a much higher rate than in the past, and this was expected to increase even more going forward. At low penetrations, these PV systems posed no significant effects on the network but that would change, it was speculated, once the level of penetration reached some as-yet-determined percentage. Electric vehicles, network storage, microgrids, network upgrades or “hardening”, and radial-to-mesh redesign would all have significant effects on today’s power grid. For a utility whose engineering staff is often smaller today than in the past, these changes will require better design and planning applications, enhanced analysis and optimization capability, and streamlined workflow support. This was added to WEDO’s growing list of requirements by the attendees.

Finally, the evolving role of the field crew was discussed at length at all the VOCs worldwide. The widespread adoption of mobile technology, the increasing availability of wireless coverage, and the unique needs of the mobile worker were discussed. Many utilities stated that their field crews were often seen as the “last frontier” of technology, often operating independently with a minimum amount of automation. Out-of-date data, less-than-optimal scheduling and routing, and excessive miles driven were problems identified where WEDO could potentially play a role. Also identified was the need for many Smart Grid applications to be deployed “closer to the customer”. Applications such as outage management, distribution management, and network design were a few that were identified as needing a highly efficient mobile component to complement the traditional back office application. There was no doubt at the conclusion of the VOCs that WEDO’s “Workforce” component was a vital piece of many utilities’ Smart Grid strategy.

Results

The results of the VOCs were captured in a “forced ranking” document where each utility was able to vote for their highest priority requirements. GE staff brought ten key capabilities to the table, and the VOC attendees added four more to the list. These fourteen signature items were ranked by each VOC around the world, and the results were informative and surprising. Topping the list at every VOC in every region was the need for more applications in the field integrated with corresponding applications in the back office. The mobile worker was seen as an area where utilities could drive efficiency while reducing negative impacts on the environment.

Also very high on the list was the need for a new generation of network analysis capability that would support emerging Smart Grid requirements such as distributed energy resources (DER), electric vehicles and non-radial network design. This capability, integrated with a geospatial design system, was seen as key to augmenting a smaller, less experienced engineering department. Similarly, the need to design and manage the emerging communications infrastructure was confirmed as a major gap in most utilities’ AMI planning. GE’s ability to use the experience gained in the telecommunication sector and leverage that technology and know-how was seen as critical for both GE and our customers.

Finally, the need to support Smart Grid without a wholesale replacement of IT systems was seen as an essential piece of many attendees’ strategy. Deploying new technology and applications while supporting many installed (and productive) legacy applications was seen as an area where GE should concentrate its effort. WEDO should augment applications and systems already in place and, in some cases, facilitate integration between existing applications.

Going Forward

Round 2 of the VOCs has already begun with a “mini VOC” focused solely on mobile applications that took place in Baltimore at the recent Smallworld User Conference. Look for more VOC s in 2010 and into 2011. If your utility would like to participate, please contact John Eason or Chuck Lang for information regarding a potential VOC in your area.