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Smart Grid Applications go on Cloud

Posted on: 30 January '12
Girish Deshpande
Technical Director - Industrial Systems and Smart Energy Group

As Smart Grid proliferates across the world, one emerging technology trend is the adoption of technologies like SaaS and Cloud for Smart Grid applications.  Many Smart Grid applications are natural candidates for these new business models and many major vendors in this sector have already committed to this model.

There are three kinds of hosted services that vendors can offer:

  1. Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) – Physical infrastructure, server hardware and network infrastructure are provided by the vendor. You are responsible for providing and managing the operating system, middleware and application stack.
  2. Platform as a Service (PaaS) – Physical infrastructure, server hardware, network infrastructure, operating system and middleware stack are provided by the vendor. You are responsible for providing and managing the application and data.
  3. Software as a Service (SaaS) – The entire stack from hardware to application is provided and managed by the vendor. The users just subscribe to the services offered by the application. The services are offered on demand.

Cloud Hosting

Although all the three models may be adopted by utilities at different degrees, the trend looks clearly towards the SaaS. In this hosted software model, the vendor hosts the application and data in his central server and provides access to the utilities on a monthly subscription basis. The utilities access the application and data over the Internet. The following may be some of the variations to this SaaS model:

  1. Everything is managed by the vendor and the utility just uses the applications. This is SaaS in its true sense.
  2. The data is managed and controlled by the utility and rest of the stack including the application is managed by the vendor.
  3. Everything is hosted inside the utility premises, but managed by the vendor.

The Software as a Service (SaaS) model will offer many benefits to the utilities:

  • No Maintenance responsibility: The Vendor commits to maintenance, uptime, performance and other SLA metrics for the entire stack.
  • Fewer people costs and management issues: Only the largest utilities may have resources and the knowhow to manage everything on their own, especially the ever changing technology.
  • Improved security: The vendors will have far more resources and experience to guarantee the most stringent security requirements for the applications.
  • Scalability and rapid provisioning: The utility can start small and add new applications and other infrastructure like servers, whenever needed.
  • No CAPEX: The vendor invests in the servers, data center, network equipment, hiring the personnel and buying or building the necessary software while the utility pays just a monthly fee.
  • Technologies like Service oriented architecture/web services will allow the utilities/vendors to mix and match the applications from different sources in loosely coupled architecture to compose the end applications. That will offer more options and flexibility to the utilities.
  • More robust: Specialists like Amazon or Microsoft or VM Ware may be in a much better situation to handle disaster recovery, than the smaller utilities.

Applications like AMI, GIS, MDMS, distribution management system (DMS), volt/VAR optimization, outage management, and asset management are all going the SaaS way, sooner or later. The AMI Energy management system is expected to be the first one to be available in this model. Utilities want to provide the end users with access to their energy data over the Internet, on mobile or on in-house display and help manage their energy consumption and costs. The Outage management application is also expected to soon follow suit.

But the true challenge is its implementation in the real world.

In November, the city of Norcross announced that it would introduce advanced metering, prepayment and an online customer portal via GE’s Grid IQ service, for which Norcross’s 25,000 utility customers would pay an extra $1 per month. For this fee, they will get the benefits of AMI, DMS, home energy management and outage management. The deal was brokered by Electric Cities of Georgia, which monitors and evaluates solutions for its member utilities.

In Leesburg, GE offers advanced metering, meter data management and demand response applications. As in Norcross, GE is responsible for managing and maintaining the applications at its data center. Leesburg will continue to own the data and manage its operations. One of Leesburg’s primary goals is to reduce usage during peak hours, thus, keeping AMI, MDMS, DR and a customer portal at the heart of the effort. But the Leesburg project will also include prepayment options and volt/VAR optimization.

Companies also target end consumers directly with their cloud based offerings.  Schneider has launched a cloud-based energy efficiency services offering, for power users like buildings and data centers.

As more and more utility applications are becoming candidates for the cloud model, big vendors like IBM, Microsoft, GE, ABB and Schneider are attracted into the SaaS fray.  They are investing heavily in this space to target potential $8.5 Billion market in US alone as reported by GTM research, from 2011 to 2015. A couple of examples:

When small or cash strapped utilities can have the same sophisticated technologies for a nominal cost that, until now, only the big utilities had access to, they are more likely to adopt the SaaS model first. Once the concept is proven and all the initial hiccups are taken care of, the big utilities might follow suit. Then we can say that Smart Grid is available as a Service on Demand. What is your take on this?

Girish Deshpande

Girish Deshpande has 19 years of experience writing software and managing projects, programs and the industrial systems IG. Girish has managed projects that encompass technologies from open source, web applications, mobile applications, embedded products to testing. A majority of the projects managed by him have also been fixed priced turnkey projects with complex product development stages. Few of the projects Girish has worked on have also won the Chairman's award at Mindtree. Girish has done his engineering in computer science.