While there's been much talk lately about smart grid, including smart meters in people's homes that report data on energy usage, the transmission layer has always been smart, said Smith.
Even so, he said, "the plant that goes into the substation is getting smarter and smarter all the time and starting to generate more and more information.
"The challenge is how much of that needs to come back to base and how much should stay in the substation, be aggregated there, summarised and potentially even sliced and diced within the substation before the important information is sent back."
Another challenge for the control room is "information overload," he said.
"Because there's so much information about so many different characteristics of so much plant [infrastructure], it's working out 'what do I actually need to pay attention to?'"
Rationalisation and virtualisation
Over the past two years, Smith has purchased mostly Dell infrastructure.
"The intent with using Dell as much as possible — whilst of course still maintaining some commercial pressure to keep [Dell] honest — is for us to minimise the overhead, maximise the value [and] minimise the re-education effort that we have to go through every time that [we] bring a new partner, new vendor or a new integrator into the space."
Having a single point of accountability is a major benefit, he said.
"You often hear the expression, 'one throat to choke'," Smith said. "We prefer, 'one back to slap'."
ElectraNet is moving the management platform it uses to monitor and control the electricity network from physical infrastructure onto Dell virtual infrastructure.
"That's a very important step for us in simplifying, de-risking and reducing the cost of future upgrades to that platform," said Smith.
The system has very high availability requirements, and it had been difficult to perform upgrades under the previous, physical approach, he said.
"The cost of the regression testing whenever you upgrade that energy management platform, because of its mission criticality, is enormous. The easier we can make that ongoing takes a lot of recurrent cost out of our business."
Smith said an initial hurdle in making the change was convincing the staff that use the monitoring system. "They hate change of any kind."
However, because the virtualisation does not create much visible change for the operators and because their manager understands the reasons for it, it has been easier to move this change through, he said.
The monitoring system will stay on premise, Smith said. He noted that the electric industry has long favoured cap-ex and owned assets, so "any move to off-premise models that are op-ex funded is a change-management challenge."
A changing industry
Smith predicted an array of additional IT challenges and opportunities ahead for the electricity industry.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.