Big data analytics will be critical to the future of the electricity industry, according to the senior IT manager of ElectraNet.

ElectraNet is the principal transmission network service provider in South Australia, managing the state's regulated high-voltage electricity transmission network.

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At a Dell customer roundtable in Singapore, ElectraNet senior IT manager Graham Smith, said data analytics is one of several tools he's exploring to reduce operating expenses and maximise value.

Also to that end, ElectraNet has streamlined its vendor relationships and is in the midst of virtualising a critical system used for monitoring.

Smith said the IT division only represents a small percentage of overall business op-ex, but IT can still have a massive indirect effect on costs.

"Where I can provide value is in widening the gap between the IT op ex and the overall business value and helping to bring down the operating expenditures of the business as a whole," he said.

Smith sees potentially big savings ahead if the company can gain greater insights about its electricity infrastructure through big data analysis.

ElectraNet has "an absolutely critical need to collect at the point of the asset really accurate information about those assets," he said.

"The analytics opportunity ahead of not just my business but our entire industry in terms of extending the life of current transmission assets is enormous."

"The electricity businesses need to run harder for longer for less--so, really sweating the existing assets," he said. "Data is the golden child there in terms of achieving that."

ElectraNet is now exploring how it can incorporate greater analytics into its business, Smith said. The company is doing a proof of concept with a local group who Smith said has a deep understanding of ElectraNet's SAP management system and has partnered with PhDs from Australian universities.

ElectraNet has not yet involved Dell in the conversation but plans to talk to the vendor about it soon, Smith said. Some of the work will rely on ElectraNet's existing Dell systems including Compellent storage, he said.

Smith said the project could be critical in providing insights about the life and capability of the company's electricity infrastructure.

"Electricity transformers can operate 50 or 60 years, so no one's got any really reliable data on the full lifecycle of the asset and what things are indicators of impending mortality of that asset or what happens if you run it harder under these conditions for this kind of duration," he said.

While there's been much talk lately about smart grid, including smart meters in people's homes that report data on energy usage, the transmission layer has always been smart, said Smith.

Even so, he said, "the plant that goes into the substation is getting smarter and smarter all the time and starting to generate more and more information.

"The challenge is how much of that needs to come back to base and how much should stay in the substation, be aggregated there, summarised and potentially even sliced and diced within the substation before the important information is sent back."

Another challenge for the control room is "information overload," he said.

"Because there's so much information about so many different characteristics of so much plant [infrastructure], it's working out 'what do I actually need to pay attention to?'"

Rationalisation and virtualisation

Over the past two years, Smith has purchased mostly Dell infrastructure.

"The intent with using Dell as much as possible -- whilst of course still maintaining some commercial pressure to keep [Dell] honest -- is for us to minimise the overhead, maximise the value [and] minimise the re-education effort that we have to go through every time that [we] bring a new partner, new vendor or a new integrator into the space."

Having a single point of accountability is a major benefit, he said.

"You often hear the expression, 'one throat to choke'," Smith said. "We prefer, 'one back to slap'."

ElectraNet is moving the management platform it uses to monitor and control the electricity network from physical infrastructure onto Dell virtual infrastructure.

"That's a very important step for us in simplifying, de-risking and reducing the cost of future upgrades to that platform," said Smith.

The system has very high availability requirements, and it had been difficult to perform upgrades under the previous, physical approach, he said.

"The cost of the regression testing whenever you upgrade that energy management platform, because of its mission criticality, is enormous. The easier we can make that ongoing takes a lot of recurrent cost out of our business."

Smith said an initial hurdle in making the change was convincing the staff that use the monitoring system. "They hate change of any kind."

However, because the virtualisation does not create much visible change for the operators and because their manager understands the reasons for it, it has been easier to move this change through, he said.

The monitoring system will stay on premise, Smith said. He noted that the electric industry has long favoured cap-ex and owned assets, so "any move to off-premise models that are op-ex funded is a change-management challenge."

A changing industry

Smith predicted an array of additional IT challenges and opportunities ahead for the electricity industry.

"Our industry in Australia is potentially going to become much more competitive, whereas in the past it's been quite a cooperative industry with a lot of information sharing."

"I'm keenly interested in what that means for our security posture, for our management of information leakage out of the organisation and all of the security implications that come out of that."

There's changes ahead for how the business operates, too, said Smith.

"Agility will be much more important for our business moving forward," he said.

That will include "looking at how we make our infrastructure more flexible to different demands, how we can allow people to work from anywhere, at any time, on any device, [and] how we move workflows around to ensure the right level of performance, availability and scalability."

And ElectraNet might soon have to think about social media for the first time, he said.

The Australian electricity regular has been pushing electric companies to demonstrate they are engaging with customers.

"At the moment our business does not have any social media presence or do any social media analysis. Depending on what model we choose to go with that consumer engagement piece, that could change dramatically."

Adam Bender travelled to Singapore as a guest of Dell.

Adam covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of dystopian sci-fi novels We, The Watched and Divided We Fall. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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