The smart grid is by no means a new concept. The idea of evolving the electrical system from a largely one-way flow of electricity from a single source into a multidirectional flow with multiple connected sources distributed along the network has existed in engineering literature and government programs for several decades. What’s different today, however, is that concept is increasingly becoming reality around the world — with important implications for service execution.
The mainstreaming of the smart grid was apparent at the latest DistribuTECH, the largest global conference for utilities and solution providers. Keynote sessions featured utility executives excitedly referencing their smart meter and solar installations. Breakout session tracks took a deeper look at utility experiences with smart grid deployments. And a tour of the exhibitor floor not only showcased traditional utility equipment — transformers and circuit breakers — but was increasingly peppered with displays of smart meters, batteries, solar panels, and electric vehicle chargers alongside messaging about “smart grid solutions.”
These new electrical assets can impact the grid in profound and beneficial ways. Austin Energy is testing the use of electric vehicles as a power source as part of a “vehicle-to-grid system.” Using a two-way inverter, electricity can be fed from grid to vehicle or vice versa. This allows consumers to be power producers (or “prosumers”), with their cars serving as power plants, and provide more grid stability to facilitate greater use of variable renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar energy. Used during periods of peak power, they can help manage electricity costs and consumer prices.
But during my tour of DTECH, a simple question arose: Who will service these proliferating, highly distributed, and complex assets? When I posed this question to smart grid solution providers (including several current ServiceMax customers) and utilities I received responses as diverse as the assets and players involved in the smart grid game. Clearly, manufacturers, utilities, and third-party service providers all have an interest in keeping these assets running, whether for reasons of warranty coverage, system reliability, or business growth. But there was no single answer as to by whom or how that service would be provided.
Despite the fragmented nature of today’s “smart grid service,” it’s possible to draw a few conclusions as to what the rise of smart grid assets means for service execution:
- The proliferation of more distributed, complex assets along the grid will strain current utility mobile workforce management systems. While in the past a utility or solution provider might have simply built or bought a bespoke app installing a specific asset (i.e., meters), maintaining siloed apps for separate assets will be unsustainable.
- The smart grid service challenge will prod leading utilities and solution providers to seek out dedicated service execution platforms. While some may be tempted by just adding on to an EAM or ERP system, they may find those approaches to be lacking in important functionality, such as contractor management or mobile extensibility.
- Smart grid growth will elevate the importance of complex, connected, and contracted service. In particular, systems that excel in complex service (through mobile communication, data access and capture); connected service (through IoT integrations); and contracted service — through external workforce enablement — will prove best suited to the smart grid service challenge.
The relative lack of attention given thus far to smart grid service can be explained in part by the industry’s initial focus on deployment and installation. But if the smart grid is to become a reality at scale, executing its service will need to be as “smart” as the assets being deployed. Companies that embrace this reality now have the opportunity to differentiate and become smart grid service leaders.