Keeping the clouds white with cloud computing

A good article from Mike Breslin about load testing.

WHEN ORVILLE AND WILBUR WRIGHT FIRST FLEW OFF INTO the clouds, they knew their newly invented infrastructure needed improvement. Even though they trusted that the underlying aeronautical principle was sound, they gambled on a long-term return on their pioneering investment.

The same may be said today of cloud computing, or SaaS (Software-as-a-Service), a versatile tool utilities can use to better manage environmental compliance.

Coping with the intricacies of compliance

This fuzzy new world is slowly coming into focus at some electric utilities. Perhaps not immediately, but the long view shows a path leading to better control of IT expenses over the coming decades, especially to manage heavier data loads emanating from the more digitally driven grid. Other utilities are already seeing big value coping with the intricacies of compliance.

Cloud computing, of course, offers unlimited potential to help customers and utilities work together to better manage load by communicating and controlling consumption via a common platform, the ubiquitous Internet. SaaS can also level the playing field for smaller players such as rural co-ops - giving them big time enterprise software capability without burden of capital outlay, rather a renter's route to high technology.

Call it synergistic savings, shared services, operational efficiency or just plain outsourcing, SaaS promises to fulfill the insatiable need to continually increase computing capacity, "as needed," without capital expenditures for new systems, or hiring new talent to tinker with them.

In theory and in practice

It's an intriguing sales pitch - an enterprise-wide Web browser can provide a quick implementation of desktop and mobile access to a shared data pools, ones specially configured by SaaS vendors with hierarchies and ready-made formats designed to handle discrete applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), environmental health and safety (EHS) reporting and home energy management (HEM) programs.

Software is stored on servers at a remote location, managed by a private SaaS contractor who takes care of all those messy little details like system maintenance and software upgrades for a subscription fee (usually on an annual basis once initial development and testing is complete). As long as security is as bulletproof as the best IT professionals can make it, why develop, build or pay for computing infrastructure? In theory, it's a winner.

In practice, SaaS has already made great strides at many utilities for EHS.

A leading North America SaaS provider reported that the number of utilities deploying cloud-based and/ or SaaS solutions to manage environmental reporting continues to grow and includes two of the largest U.S. energy providers: PG&E and Southern California Edison. Other utilities now using cloud for EHS include Entergy, FirstEnergy, Georgia Power, PPL and American Electric Power (AEP).

AEP and environmental compliance

AEP, one of the country's largest generators of electricity (owning nearly 38,000 MW of capacity) has highly sensitive environmental issues since the majority of its generation is coal-fired.

"Being largely coal-fired our exposure on compliance is extremely high and so our management is very progressive and proactive on environmental matters," said Greg McCall, AEP's senior engineer for environmental strategy and planning.

It is interesting to note that cloud computing began to emerge at about the same time EPA reporting began to become a more onerous operational task. Perhaps they were destined for each other. As we know, the consequences of non-compliance can be horrific - large fines, legal liabilities and bad public and investor perceptions.

To manage and ensure strict environmental compliance, AEP began looking for a strong software solution in 1995.

An evolution for AEP

McCall told us how AEP evolved to SaaS: "Back then it was all client-based servers. You bought a server and installed software on individual PCs or on the corporate server. Because this was a smaller project by comparison to what our IT department is used to handling, we didn't feel that IT would give us the attention we needed to get our smallish project in place.

"Besides, in the late 1990s, software was very modular-based. You could find a module for doing air quality, water or waste, but that route was very restrictive for a large operation like AEP with our diversity of facilities."

AEP continued to monitor the development if integrated EHS systems until 2003 when it found a promising SaaS solution.

"We looked at the tool, which was one platform and not a series of modules - more of an integrated tool to build a compliance system on, rather than a more restrictive model that did one specific thing," McCall said. "This gave us a lot of flexibility, which we really wanted due to the size of our corporation. We needed a tool that was highly configurable, but configurable by us, compliance and environmental specialists, not by hiring IT programmers."

Building slowly and carefully

After building a few test systems on the SaaS platform, AEP finally implemented Title IV of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments on it in 2005 for a few of its facilities. It's a very detailed compliance program at AEP. Each of more than 40 power plants is permitted with hundreds of requirements that each has to meet on air quality issues.

"We were so pleased with the results we decided to roll it out for general compliance on all the different emission programs we have to meet," McCall said.

By the end of 2009, AEP's EHS system was fully implemented and operational at all generating facilities. Today it has 1,450 authorized users, all those concerned with compliance issues. "Our IT department has insisted on high standards for security and managing our user community. We get a daily email from HR regarding employees who have left the company so we can make sure that our list of users is updated. Anyone leaving immediately loses access to the system," McCall explained.

What McCall likes about SaaS is what all users like - the vendor handles all the infrastructure work, software upgrades, data backup and updates the tool with the latest technology. "My gut feeling is IT has so much work to do with big corporate systems they are not sad at all to have lost our business. Part of the reason we went with our SaaS vendor is because our project is not very big and it's hard to get resources dedicated to it," he said.

"Implementing outside IT worked well because we hired environmental consultants to help us get it all set up with their full attention on our project. Since we are now operational we've been shifting away from consultants."

An environmental thumbs-up

From an environmental point of view AEP is "very pleased" with the system, McCall said: "It has certainly raised our internal bar for managing our environmental compliance. We have dashboards here at headquarters where we can see the status of all compliance activities around our system. It gives us a much higher comfort level that all the things necessary to meet compliance are being done."

One struggle endemic to any maturing system is keeping up enhancements and adding capabilities as it becomes more complex. "We want to use it more for data entry at the plants and manage daily workflows at the plant level. Any requirement that a permit dictates for compliance has an assigned task that needs to be done and signed-off as completed," he said. A permit may have several hundred requirements of what must be done, monitored, reported on a schedule, or notifications that must be made if this or that happens. All those tasks can be built-in and we want to make sure they happen."

McCall explained how the system has improved compliance training and task continuity: "Typically each plant had a sharp person who has been with the company a long time and understands all the permit conditions and tasks to keep the plant compliant. We had that person explain all the things he did and we built out tasks and explanations so it could be clearly passed on to others.

"They often had a hard time understanding why we wanted all this information because the way were doing everything was just fine. It took a long time to work this out, but a year-and-a-half ago we had a downsizing and a number of our key environmental people at the plants took a nice retirement package. That's where the value of the system really came shinning through. A new person coming in could just go into the system and look and see what needed to be done at the pant. It made that transition extremely smooth," he said.

"We've always presented this system in terms of being good environmental stewards. It's in place to manage our compliance and do it as well or better than anybody. We know we avoid penalties with this system, but have not tried to quantify savings and justify the system from that point of view," McCall explained.

"It's more of the right thing to do."