Technology Integration: IT-OT convergence offers sustainable benefits to power utilities

IT-OT convergence offers sustainable benefits to power utilities

One of the key changes that utilities are currently experiencing is the convergence of information technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT), which have traditionally occupied separate silos.

OT represents a broad category of components that utilities depend on for safe and reliable generation and delivery of energy. These include control room applications such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, geographic information systems for mapping, remote terminal units, meters, sensors, and software to control and monitor networks. IT, on the other hand, is typically associated with back-end functions that support business processes like billing, revenue collection, analytics, asset tracking and maintaining customer information. The technologies include enterprise resource planning, demand response management, advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

Utilities can capitalise on operational efficiency savings by seamlessly integrating data from OT systems with their back-end IT systems to improve customer relationships, achieve cost savings, offer new services and manage internal changes within an organisation.

Need and opportunities

Historically, OT and IT have been developed, maintained and used in silos in utility organisations for distribution operations. While technical and organisational challenges prevail for those looking to cross IT-OT boundaries, there are compelling business imperatives and strong technology drivers for increased IT-OT integration. Convergence of IT and OT is driven by the need for asset integration. The objective is to make these assets operation ready, taking into consideration all the complexities of operating interconnected electric systems. Further, there is a need to manage very large quantities of data from new devices and sensors spread throughout the power networks, metering devices and home area networks in near-real time. Moreover, the underlying technology of OT systems, spanning platforms, software, security and communications, is increasingly beginning to resemble IT systems, thus validating the case for IT to contribute to OT software management. Shared standards and platforms across IT and OT can enable utilities to reduce costs across the software management landscape including enterprise architecture, support and security models, software configuration practices, and information and process integration.

For instance, metering was traditionally a part of the OT domain. Automated meter reading and AMI solutions, which emerged from OT, are now connected to the IT world. Billing, on the other hand, was typically an IT solution. With the implementation of end-to-end smart metering (meter-to-bill), bills are now based on exact readings instead of estimates. CRM, which is also part of the IT world, plays a vital role in this scenario. With end-to-end smart metering, when a customer contacts a call centre to complain about quality of service (e.g., overvoltage), the operator can access the customer’s smart meter in real time to check the historical data stored locally.

Similarly, by synchronising OT systems with cloud-based IT systems, utilities can achieve substantially lower operating costs in addition to increased power availability and more flexible power management strategies. For example, moving to the cloud could lead to huge changes in data analytics, which will become increasingly important as more intelligent electronic devices are integrated with the current electricity grid. It will also allow utilities to manage their intelligent electronic devices, regardless of how the data is transferred, through the cloud or otherwise.

Risks and challenges

While IT and OT convergence can yield several benefits, the increased interconnectivity makes the grid more vulnerable to cybersecurity issues. As remotely deployed field devices and SCADA systems are increasingly brought into the IT domain, they open up new points of cyberattacks. Unlike IT systems, which are constantly and often automatically updated with service packs, new releases and bug fixes, OT devices quite often run on the same software as what they used when they were initially installed, which, in many cases, could be 10-15 years or older. Moreover, such devices have limited security capabilities because they were installed at a time when the physical separation from IT systems was considered to be secure. Aside from cybersecurity issues, other challenges for utilities in achieving IT-OT convergence include high costs, lack of interoperability, as well as organisational issues.

In order to overcome these issues, utilities could follow a step-by-step approach by undertaking pilot projects that can be completed quickly, offer tangible and sustainable benefits, and represent a comparatively lower risk for the com-pany. The main objective of these pilots could be to gather experience in IT-OT convergence as well as to train resources, which can serve as multipliers in future projects.