Power-sharing: United Energy's $4m software boost

Victorian utility United Energy is deploying a $4 million distribution management system so it can respond faster to power outages and better manage its electricity and gas supplies to more than one million customers in Melbourne.

Following the utility's expansion of its core line of business from electricity supply to gas in late 1999, the United Energy (UE) also faced increasing market pressure to deliver a more reliable energy supply to both business and residential customers.

These drivers encouraged UE to invest in a comprehensive software solution, providing the company with advanced control tools for real-time identification and management of power outages and gas supply.

"While we have achieved significant improvements in reliability through investment in the distribution network, the DMS solution is expected to deliver our customers more reliability improvements [in the future]," said Robert Schwieger, United Energy's business systems manager.

An initial $4 million investment in the system covers the deployment of utilities infrastructure solution provider CES International's DMS (distribution management system) solution, Centricity.

The solution has two modules, OpsCentricity InterSys and Operators Workspace which, respectively, provide the technology backbone for communication, and the systems management application for controllers at UE.

OpsCentricity InterSys and Operators Workspace enables UE's control room engineers to forecast power loads on energy assets more accurately. "We used to calculate loads based on worse-case scenario predictions on wind speed and temperature, but CES's tools will allow us to run our network a lot harder and more dynamically than before. This means we save the organisation, and in turn our customers, money, because we're using our resources more efficiently," Schwieger said.

The $4 million backing also funded the most advanced integration of a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system and CES' Centricity in the world, UE sources said.

Phase one of the rollout in July 2000 saw UE and CES establish what Schwieger called the "gas phase" of the project, deploying a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system to monitor and control gas supply to Melbourne's south-eastern suburbs.

Phase two, involving the implementation of Centricity, is on target to finish in August, according to Schwieger. "Centricity brings our systems into a single view for our operators. It integrates our gas and electricity systems into the control room."

"We moved to this whole software platform to give the entire company a real-time view of our distribution networks. This system is unique. It breaks the control room's ringed-fenced [mentality] of systems management - systems which used to be mapped out on paper - giving the whole business access to real-time information which was previously only available in the control room," he said.

Schwieger expects to see an increased return on investment with the rollout in August. "The reliability improvements the system brings will be the biggest benefit, and cost savings will be an added benefit."

"These phases, with the close integration of our graphical information system (GIS) and other information systems like SAP, will provide the platform for future phases of the system. In our future plans, the system will interface with United Energy's customer information system, allowing for more proactive outage management services such as individual customer management, tracking dispatch activities of a multiple retailer network, and giving improved tools for managing field operatives for fault repairs," he added.

Schwieger conceded there were some hurdles to overcome during the integration process, the main difficulty lying in interfacing the new DMS with an existing GIS. "It took some effort to ensure that the way the GIS data was represented in the DMS had the right look and feel for users," he said.

One key to success was in emphasising the importance of business aspects rather than IT in the project‘s management, Schwieger said. Business staff were the drivers of the project with the assistance of IT staff, he said. "We had clear business objectives, and then involved IT to ensure the technology fit with our IT architecture. IT was there more for guidance."

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