Building software to model, monitor and control utility distribution grids isn’t easy. Today’s grid operators face a host of new challenges, from optimizing a one-way power delivery network that’s serving an increasingly two-way, energy-interactive set of customers, to restoring power outages with a combination of automated restoration systems and constant communication with workers in the field.

Beyond the SCADA systems grid operators are used to, the new grid has tons of new data, from smart meters, grid sensors, field crew mobile devices and even customer Facebook and Twitter feeds, all of which must be organized in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the humans making the final decisions. And, of course, all of this must come at price points that utilities can pay, depending on what their regulators believe it’s worth -- and it has to integrate with whatever old software platforms those utilities want, or need, to keep.

In short, today’s advanced distribution management system (ADMS) has to balance the constraints of the past, the needs of today, and the uncertain challenges of the future, if it’s going to succeed in the marketplace. Perhaps that’s why the ADMS field is limited to a handful of grid giants with the deep pockets and technical expertise to take it on, including Schneider Electric, Siemens, Alstom, Oracle, and General Electric.

GE’s Tuesday launch of its PowerOn Advantage ADMS is the U.S. giant’s move to keep up with these competitors in their race to provide the common platform for a whole host of previously siloed utility platforms, such as geographic information systems (GIS), outage management systems (OMS), asset management systems (AMS), and their precursor platform, the good old DMS.

In GE’s case, it’s promising a step beyond into smart meter (AMI) and workforce mobile platforms as well, drawing on the Predix software platform it’s building to support its plans to link all manner of sensor-equipped machines -- including grid gear -- into M2M networks, which it calls the “industrial internet.” For managing real-time data integration needs, GE is promising help from its broader Grid IQ grid data analytics business, Mike Carlson, general manager of software solutions for GE Digital Energy, said in a Monday press pre-briefing at the DistribuTECH conference in San Antonio, Texas.

The goal is “one network model, utilized across asset planning, asset management and control systems,” he said. Combining grid management with outage management brings “one interface” to utility operators, with mapping, visualization and data analysis tools to be replicated across its other grid products, he said. The goal, he concluded, is “ultimately one database, one version of the truth.”

UPDATE: GE isn't the only grid giant launching a new ADMS platform at DistribuTECH. Siemens announced its new Spectrum Power ADMS on Tuesday, calling it a "first of its kind" product for North American utilities, with a combination of SCADA, outage management and fault detection, along with AMI and GIS integration via service-oriented architecture.

There’s a long way to go to get to this unified, data-enabled version of reality, of course. That’s particularly true in the “last-mile” portion of the low-voltage distribution grid, where rooftop solar PV, plug-in electric vehicles, controllable customer loads and other emerging technologies are coming into conflict with the static, model-based systems that govern how the grid is envisioned and managed by utilities.

Even so, GE’s new ADMS represents an important step in that direction, according to Dave Daly, ADMS solution director for GE Digital Energy. For example, PowerOn Advantage’s in-memory data processing grants grid operators more precise knowledge of which circuits are energized and which aren’t, so they can run automated switching schemes at the same time that work crews are restoring lines nearby, he said -- something older systems can’t do.

“If you have more confidence in the data, you can run your system harder” in other ways as well, Daly added, such as permitting circuits to run at closer to their maximum capacity, or tapping volt/VAR optimization or demand-side management to keep loads within bounds. That’s helped by the system’s ability to “constantly run the power flow. It’s not just on demand; it’s constantly there,” he said -- although a utility’s ability to continuously model power flows is dependent on how much computing power they’re able to afford to manage that process.

GE defines real-time data as “outage data, AMI data -- anything that’s coming back that tells you the state of your network,” he said. Of course, many of these data sources, like smart meters, are limited in how quickly they bring back data to the control room. Still, they’ve got uses for “last-gasp” outage detection or “pinging” meters to see if they’ve had power restored, as well as “where it’s available, taking the measurement data and bringing that back from the meters to understand the load profile of the circuits,” he said.

As for how GE will stand behind its claims of expanded functionality and the value of such a system, Carlson said that the company is working on a “value-based pricing” model for the system to help utilities foot the bill, though he wouldn’t provide specific pricing details.

“Each utility is in a different part of their progression” toward a state of advanced grid control, he said. PowerOn Advantage is built to be deployable in modular fashion, so that utilities can choose to keep their existing OMS system, for example. In similar fashion, GE is looking at managed deployments that build on existing sensors and smart meter networks, and create pricing models that allow the utility and GE to be paid out as the scaling benefits are realized. “Added sensors, added capabilities -- it’s almost a volume-based game,” he said.

Stacking up GE’s new offering against the ADMS on offer from rivals like Schneider Electric and Siemens, or the similar IDMS (integrated distribution management system) from Alstom, is a tricky proposition. Each rival is busy integrating new endpoints like smart meters and mobile workforce platforms, and putting increased computing power and data analytics behind it all.

Beyond this, there’s a whole section of the grid edge to be tackled, including distributed energy resources like solar PV, on-site generators and energy storage systems. These could be the building blocks of the future platforms known today by such acronyms as DERMS (distributed energy resource management systems). But while many grid giants, including GE, are looking to that future, it’s not quite here yet, Carlson said.

“We have a whole distributed energy management platform strategy on the shelf,” he said. “When it has a three-year demand horizon on it, we will pull it off the shelf.”