Chris King| May 31, 2013

How utilities can blend the IT/OT silos

Historically in the energy industry, information technology and operational technology have occupied very separate realms -- often for good reasons. But today, utilities can only realize the full benefits of advanced metering and smart grid systems if they join these silos to build more collaborative teams and interoperable systems.

At the upcoming Siemens Smart Grid Software Leadership Conference (June 4-6, San Francisco), Larsh Johnson (founder and CTO of eMeter, a Siemens business) will lead a general-session discussion with executives from Kansas City Power & Light, CenterPoint, SaskPower and Accenture about how they've managed, and benefitted from, IT/OT convergence.

IT/OT convergence means integrating operational technologies (such as energy distribution management, real-time grid operations at the transmission and substation level, and more) with IT systems supporting metering, customer business processes, analytics, billing, field dispatches, etc.

Often the utility CIO oversees this blending of teams, processes, budgets and cultures. This can be challenging.

Johnson explains some of the hurdles: "Security is always a big concern -- the silos often served as a security firewall. Sometimes the OT people are concerned that, say, a customer web portal might provide a way for hackers to tunnel through to SCADA systems and shut down part of the grid. But then sometimes it's about fiefdoms: each team is dedicated to its core mission and doesn't want anything getting in the way. Other teams and missions may initially look like a distraction."

Systems interoperability is also a challenge. Johnson notes that this is where working with Siemens on smart grid projects can boost overall IT/OT convergence -- since Siemens' long track record of working with the utility industry provides a vision and skill set that supports a utility's cross-functional mission.

How are utilities making IT/OT convergence work? According to Johnson, some utilities have created a networks operation center which is physically located near the operational control center which runs the grid. This makes it easier to integrate both teams in key decisions and brainstorming, building trust.

Also, applications like demand response enabled by smart grid technology represents a key near-term driver for IT/OT convergence. "Demand response can be viewed either as an IT or OT product," said Johnson. "But in order to do it, the driver for action must start on the OT side. In a system peak scenario, operations will say, 'you don't have enough power, shut something down.' Then if IT can reliably reduce demand, everyone's happy."

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