From reaction to pro-action: Modernising the grid control room


By Kristen Sanderson, Consulting engineer at GE Energy

Walking into most busy control rooms today, you would be struck by the heightened sense of urgency and organised chaos that saturates the low-lit room – it’s a beehive of activity.

Operators sit in front of a multitude of monitors, stacked or arranged in semi-circles around them. Upon closer inspection, one would see the monitors display data and information from multiple systems – from outage management systems (OMS) to Distribution Management Systems (DMS) to websites/portals and email applications.

If you were to ask the operator why so many monitors, it would become clear they need to work with multiple systems as no single system is able to meet all operational needs.

As a typical workday moves forward, operators deftly switch between radio, phone, chat and email, working with data on-screen and with paper backups and notes. Switching steps and safety measures are typically confirmed and repeated over radio and phone lines, ad hoc work can be sent via text message to field personnel with responses and work order status updates returned the same way, and finally, meter information, where available, is checked on-screen to assess a customer’s status.

As operators monitoring neighbouring zones swap paper switching schedules, loud audible alarms sound, announcing higher voltage trips, signalling bigger issues and pushing up operators’ urgency levels. Eventually, a lull in the hectic workflow allows the control room team to catch up on paperwork required for regulatory compliance; in some companies this effort requires bringing in additional staff.

As our modern distribution systems evolve, so too must the ‘brain’ of the operation. Without this evolution, utilities risk creating costly inefficiencies in work processes, utilising inaccurate data to make critical operational and business decisions which may result in extended outage durations, non-compliance with regulations, and increased customer dissatisfaction.

To ensure effective and efficient management of today’s modern grid, utilities need a better way.

Taking a fresh look at the grid control room: 

The reality of today’s distribution networks and tomorrow’s modern grids makes it clear that any solution must focus on the user experience of the operator and the operators’ ability to sift through the ‘noise’. Operators must be able to prioritise data inputs as they appear and streamline and simplify interaction with the growing number of devices (digital and paper-based) and systems built with integrated intelligence that are required to visualise and manage a dynamic distribution network.

With more than 30 years of experience in the utility space, GE is an experienced veteran. However, the GE team wanted to take a fresh look at the problem. To achieve this, we leveraged the new GE Software Center of Excellence to bring in product design experts, adding user experience research and design to our existing expertise.

Gathering design experts with product, customer and utility experience, the team collaborated on product and market discovery. A vital part of the discovery and observation phases included working with four utility companies across two continents, representing more than 20 million customers.

We interviewed approximately 40 users with several different activities. Capturing a day in the life within their role helped us understand the workflows users performed, what technologies and systems they interacted with and how their work changed throughout the day as well as during periods of high intensity.

Co-designing dashboards helped us better understand users’ approach to their work, how they processed data, and what information was most critical to them. Observation in their working environment enabled us to appreciate the dynamic environment of the control room and complexities of achieving work. Being able to witness firsthand the multitasking, communications and complex desk environment was an extremely powerful input into our design process.

The team emerged with a clear understanding of how control rooms tick, and a greater appreciation and grasp of the challenges and pain points of control room operators. Observations from these phases were analysed and distilled into a set of insights and opportunities for improvement, resulting in a new design vision for the control room and management of active distribution networks that represented an immense departure – a paradigm shift – from the current and traditional systems and capabilities.

The design vision was realised in a new dashboard and navigation concept – where data finds the user – making it easier for an operator to filter and prioritise issues and work, and a new methodology for supporting workflows on the active network. This design concept manifests itself through an optimised three-screen layout, comprising the dashboard, the network diagram and the work page – eliminating the need for many monitors and multiple mouse/keyboard sets.

Operational workflows are integrated, optimised and streamlined. Throughout the new design, color palette and iconography are simplified to reduce visual noise. Color is utilised to highlight important information to the user thus drawing the eye. Taken all together, this design vision represents a revolutionary change in current system visualisations.

Our future brings a much more active network due to grid complexity, challenging our ongoing commitment to keeping our people and the public safe. The need for transparency to, and engagement of, both our customers and our regulators is becoming as important as our system operations.

The existing environment of digital solutions does not adequately address the operational needs of managing and optimising modern, active distribution networks. If nothing changes, this inadequacy will continue to be demonstrated through the proliferation of manual systems that act as barriers to progress.

Our research and the resulting design vision offers a new visualisation that addresses the pain points observed throughout our research and will revolutionise operations in a new active network era, presenting an innovative departure from traditional systems.

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