WA utility deploys Azure, business intelligence to track grid


news Microsoft revealed this week that state-owned electricity distributor Western Power had deployed Microsoft’s cloud computing Azure platform coupled with its Power BI product to automatically collate, analyse and visualise the data from millions of electricity meters deployed around Western Australia.

In a statement, Microsoft said Western Power had previously been conducting analysis on its outage trends and geographical ‘hotspots’ using a time-consuming manual process. The organisation has an electricity supply network which is spread across 250,000 square kilometres in Western Australia, servicing over two million customers.

Working with Microsoft partner Ignia, Western Power implemented a solution to automatically collate, analyse and visualise the massive volumes of event data collected from the millions of electricity meters it owns in the state.

The result was what Western Power calls the ‘Customer Service Outage Dashboard’ — an online tool which provides graphical analysis of outages and at-a-glance key performance indicators and metrics. Staff can now easily explore and investigate outage data; the solution facilitates the identification of outage “hotspots” and the associated underlying trends.

Hosted in Azure and delivered by the Power BI platform, MIcrosoft said the solution gives Western Power a cost-effective, scalable, and accessible source of outage information, providing a solid foundation for more efficient and proactive customer service.

Gino Giudice, Head of Customer Service at Western Power, was keen to introduce more advanced reporting capabilities to the business and to use the data captured by affiliated systems more effectively.

“While we were able to manually collate the required reports, there was certainly room for improvement around this process and opportunities to provide ‘next-level’, proactive service to our customers,” said Giudice in Microsoft’s statement.

Giudice tasked the Ignia team with creating a highly visual, interactive solution, able to display outage areas and trends, to enable Western Power teams to conveniently investigate the locations and underlying causes of repeated service interruptions.

The project team applied an Agile delivery methodology to rapidly identify and deliver the most appropriate solution by incrementally refining the detailed requirements and aligning the architecture and technologies to suit. Along the way, the team considered several potential designs for Western Power before deciding to implement a fully cloud-based Power BI solution, hosted in Microsoft Azure.

A key design element was scalability. The solution needed to accommodate huge amounts of data being generated daily by the electricity distribution network, and then to rapidly process and visualise the relevant information.

“The project was certainly challenging,” recalls John Rampono, Lead Architect at Ignia. “We were working with a large and complex data set; the solution had to analyse event data generated each minute by millions of electricity meters from around the State. This was solved by leveraging the Azure Cloud infrastructure. Azure table storage combined with Azure SQL and Power BI provided the scalability to deal with the data load.”

Storage cost was also an important consideration, and a significant input to the final product design. Hosting the solution in Azure proved a more cost-effective way to capture and store the large volumes of data involved, compared with commissioning and supporting new infrastructure on-premises.

With supply data flowing into Azure and automatically populating dashboards and maps, Western Power staff can now explore and analyse service interruptions, gauge the direct impact on customers and act quickly to rectify.

The Western Power customer service team now spend less time manually collating data into reports, and instead focus more on business activities, which ultimately leads to improved customer service. Accessible information provides capability for more efficient and increasingly proactive communication, both to external customers and also across the Western Power leadership team.

Leveraging Microsoft Azure also directly translated into reduced storage cost, a critical factor given the volumes of data involved. Rather than commission new infrastructure, with the associated licensing and ongoing management overheads, an Azure solution provided Western Power with a scalable storage environment of guaranteed availability.

I think this is pretty much a perfect demonstration of the power of cloud computing when applied even to a highly rigid environment such as an energy utility.

I don’t think the electrical engineers who run Western Power’s network would heavily use this platform or regard it as particularly mission-critical — they would probably have older tools for monitoring the network.

However, for the rest of the company, this platform looks like a great way to get quick information on what’s happening with Western Power’s network. This is invaluable in an organisation the size of Western Power, and deploying this via the cloud is a great way to keep costs down and keep the project agile. I like what Microsoft, Ignia and Western Power have done here.

Image credits: Pixabay, Microsoft