Delivering electricity to 2.9 million customers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas, Entergy is implementing advanced data analytics and internet-of-things technology across all its divisions. We sat down with VP Raiford Smith ahead of our inaugural Grid Edge East forum on April 3.

Smith is leading digital transformation efforts at the Southeastern utility and will join Patty Durand of the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative at the Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina to present a case study on how digital tools are helping Entergy revolutionize the customer experience.

GTM: What are the main challenges and opportunities you are facing today when it comes to digital transformation across Entergy’s distribution footprint?

Raiford Smith: I think the biggest thing is, first and foremost, change management. We’re fundamentally having to rethink what we offer customers and reshape the grid, using data and analytics to create new insights and redesign just about every process and procedure that we have. Every technology we use, or that the customer uses, is a digitally enabled one, which means it produces vast amounts of data. How we integrate that data, and how we create better insights out of it, is crucial.

We need to focus on delivering on the full value proposition of the grid to the consumer. If consumers are looking for a lot more out of the grid than just the traditional affordable, reliable and safe power, I think it’s up to the utility to figure out how to best do that. And I think IOT, 5G and blockchain are some really interesting and exciting technologies that could unlock further new potential for consumers.

GTM: What are the biggest hurdles you see in how distribution utilities need to manage and maximize these endless streams of grid data?

Raiford Smith: We just have way more data than we could possibly have imagined. So, just being able to sort, manage, govern, cleanse and make that data relevant and available — that is a big-enough task. I think the second aspect of all of that is you can’t [rely on] the traditional ways of operating the grid when you get all that data. Problems have to be resolved too quickly, so you don’t have the time to send all the data back to a centralized hub to be able to make that happen. So, interoperability considerations like the use of Open Field Message Bus and IEC-61850 are going to be critical to distributing computing and enhancing operational capabilities.

Cybersecurity is another big issue. Often, it is treated as an "after the fact." Once again, doing things on a centralized basis is a very unwise decision from a security perspective. That’s another thing pushing us to distributed computing platforms.

And then, the proliferation of all the smart assets and distributed energy resources represent enormous challenges, not just from a planning perspective, but from an integration and operations perspective, especially if not all of those assets are under the utility’s control, which they likely won’t be. How do we integrate them and make them operate in harmony, and create the best value proposition for our customers? That’s a really tough task, and requires a lot more analytics, integration and interoperability than what we have today.

GTM: You mentioned cybersecurity. What are some of the biggest cyber threats and vulnerability points distribution utilities face today?

Raiford Smith: One of the obvious vulnerabilities is that so much of what we do is on a centralized basis today. Think about one of the most common hacks that exists, called a denial-of-service attack, which basically involves flooding one spot with so much information that it fails to distinguish spam from valid messages. When you have a centralized system, a system that works on a centralized node to optimize its performance, you have an inherent security flaw.

Regardless of DERs, which are themselves pushing the need to distribute computing power to make the system speed up and optimize faster, even without that, you still need to further distribute your computing and your data collection away from one centralized point. The more we can distribute that, the more resilient and robust that infrastructure can become.

It definitely changes the security profile of the system, but it improves the reliability and resiliency of it because there is no single system that controls it all. That doesn’t mean you can’t have hierarchal systems. You certainly can, but the way we utilize data and utilize optimization today versus how we will do it in the future — and being driven by things like IOT, interoperability, 5G — security will become a benefit associated with distributing your computing power.

GTMNow that you are talking about decentralization, what trends hold more potential to disrupt the way distribution grids have traditionally been operated?

Raiford Smith: I hate to give you the lawyer answer, but it really depends. Change has to happen at least on three different fronts. The first is the business model itself. Without the right regulation and business structures put in place, regulation could be a hindrance to innovation rather than a catalyst for it. The second is technology, and interoperability, IOT and 5G are all critical.

Thirdly, and this is the biggest wild card of all of them, is what does the customer really want? The customer ultimately decides where we want to go, and it’s up to us to develop and deliver a system that operates consistently with what they want. If they want us to be truly transactive, that’s certainly one universe of thought. If they want us to be integrated partners, that’s another. But without the customer really giving us that feedback, that guidance — we can create all the business models and cool technology we want, but we still need customers to show us where we need to go.

GTMWhat innovations are going to be more successful based on the appetite you see from Entergy’s customers?

Raiford Smith: What we see from customers is they want their energy experience to be easier. They want to see less friction, producing more comfort and convenience in their lives and in their businesses. And they want energy to be more sustainable, in addition to it being affordable and reliable. How that translates into individual journeys for every customer — it’s a bit of a unique experience for everyone, depending on who they are and what their priorities are. Five years ago, the idea of having a smart thermostat as a load control switch was impossible. We had no idea such a thing would exist. Today it’s normal, it’s networked and it produces a ton of data.

Customers are going to expect seamless, easy, sustainable, reliable and affordable experiences as it pertains to energy. And they want all the complexity of pricing and technology and interoperability hidden away. At the end of the day, the utilities and technologies that deliver on that are going to be the ones to win. Underneath it all, you need to have analytics and a fundamentally sound power grid. Without those two things, it doesn’t matter what the customer wants, you’re just not going to be able to deliver on it.

GTM: Entergy’s footprint spans territories like East Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, all of which are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather. How are you using digital tools to enhance the resilience of your network?

Raiford Smith: We have a grid modernization plan that involves doing everything from replacing and upgrading poles and wires to putting fault location, isolation and service restoration and other distribution automation capabilities throughout our system. But that is only one part in a more complex system.

Another part would be having a robust telecommunications infrastructure. After all, having smart assets that can’t coordinate between each other isn’t very smart. And the third piece is the use of all that data. Because having smart assets is good. Having smart assets that can coordinate together is better. And having all that data being able to create insights and predict what to do before things occur is best. To me, that’s the analytics piece, which is everything from better forecasting of weather events to how to pre-position line crews, how to better manage assets or how to spot issues that may be undetectable based on today’s techniques but, with data and analytics, are far more perceptible to us.

Come to the Duke University campus in Durham on April 3 for Grid Edge East and join Entergy and other smart grid powerhouses, including Duke Energy, Dominion, Con Edison, Southern Company, JEA, Oncor and many more.