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The IoT in Future Electric Utility Environments

By Bosco Eduardo Fernandes CEO, COMCON

Beyond being smart, the high-voltage electricity utility grid needs to be active, meaning that it must be able to respond to changes in real time. To be useful today, the flood of data collected by power transmission networks and smart meters has to pass through analysis systems and human interventions in the utility’s back office. In contrast, the active grid will leverage data to make real-time changes in the field. The active grid harnesses the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve efficiencies and create value for both utilities and communities.

Path to the Active Grid

With a suite of technologies and associated business processes, the IoT gives all types of devices the ability to communicate their status to other systems and creates the opportunity to evaluate and act on these new sources of information. The electric utility industry has taken note of IoT applications and is using them prudently. While seldom on the bleeding edge, utilities have always leveraged available technology to optimize and control assets, increase safety, control the grid, and keep the lights on.

To explain how the IoT is used in the electric power industry, we will look at Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition (SCADA) and Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).

SCADA’s roots stretch back to the early 1950s and thus long predate today’s IoT concepts. Yet the ’new’ IoT concepts clearly resemble those of SCADA, which uses sensors and actuators that communicate with and are controlled by a central master unit.

As a key component of the smart grid, AMI adds a two-way communication system of smart devices at both utility and customer sites using smart meters, communications networks, and data management systems.

Advances in computing, databases, and analytical tools now allow the rapid application of predictive and prescriptive analytics to large volumes of data from SCADA, AMI, and other commercial and consumer IoT devices.

For example, an Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) is an IoT technology that solution providers are developing to achieve situational awareness. An ADMS is an integrated software platform that takes advantage of new and existing applications to create a unified monitoring and control system. This control system must maintain reliability, leverage all manner of embedded systems and distributed resources, and safeguard property and people from the variabilities inherent in the grid. ADMS is an important step toward the active intelligent grid.

IoT Capabilities

IoT technology can improve the efficiency and performance of the power grid in three phases:

  • By gathering data from sensors to improve the resilience of the grid
  • Through enablement in which utilities leverage that data with continuous monitoring and algorithmic interpretation of electrical characteristics to actively manage resources
  • Finally, through optimization in which all stake-holders can make informed decisions about power generation and use that are then built into the way the grid works

These three phases point to a future in which utilities can thrive in a more competitive environment. By providing the means to optimize real-time operations, the IoT helps realize the full value of the Transmission and Distribution (T&D) network. The potential use of IoT technology includes:

  • Self-healing network automation
  • Intelligent asset management and utilization
  • Power outage and failure management

Additionally, security can be improved even as additional IoT devices are added. Traditional identity management platforms have been designed to support authorization policies only for URLs and lack the ability to address the unique needs of the IoT. Today’s identity platforms offer new universal authorization capabilities that make it possible to secure IoT devices. These capabilities are similar to the ones used, for example, to unlock a hotel room with the guest’s phone. Universal authorization makes it possible to define specific resource types or ‘things’ with custom actions to build solution-specific policies.

As with any industry-wide revolution, the transformations that the IoT will soon make in the energy industry are so varied that it is difficult to discuss them all. From smart buildings and urban infrastructure to the democratization of energy and a greater push for renewables, the Energy Internet is undoubtedly a massive disruptive force. Highly responsive and granular control of our world’s energy supplies and distribution will bring about changes that just a few years ago were unimaginable. Communities will be connected in ways never before conceived, and energy will be optimized for greater savings on scales not yet realized. In short, the IoT is the future of the electric power industry.

In addition to making the grid smarter, the IoT enables the connection of multiple new physical devices to the power grid and to the data networks that support the grid. Rooftop solar, electric cars, fuel cells, home battery storage, smart meters, smart thermostats, and smart appliances are all changing local distribution grids into bidirectional, multi-party marketplaces for energy that will replace the old one-way system for energy delivery.

These new connected devices could cause chaos on distribution grids that were never designed to handle these new dynamics, yet customers will still expect energy service to be safe, reliable, affordable, and, increasingly, sustainable.

Fortunately, as a result of advancements in Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and the affordability of increased computing power, it is now practical to deploy robust smart grid platforms. More importantly, for the first time, smart grid technology enables coordinated analysis and response among connected devices in ways that were previously impractical or impossible.

Robust processing power and memory also allow smart meters and grid sensors to provide a unified software and computing platform that simultaneously supports multiple communications and application protocols. Moreover, placing a significant degree of processing power in the endpoints combined with advances in software-defined communications have paved the way to solve critical connectivity and communications performance challenges that have long frustrated utilities deploying single-communications networks.

Versatile Communications Choices

Communication modules now combine RF mesh, Power-Line Carrier (PLC), and Wi-Fi communications on the same chip set. These diverse choices enable dynamic and continuous selection of the optimal communications path and the most appropriate frequency modulation based on network operating conditions, data attributes, and application requirements. This new platform also provides peer-to-peer and local broadcast communications capabilities that enable edge devices to communicate with each other individually or in select groups to support new distributed analytics scenarios.

Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) or Low-Power Wide-Area Networks (LPWANs) using licensed spectrum, in-band, guard-band, and stand-alone deployments are expected to play an important role in connecting a wide range of low-mobility, low-power, and low-cost devices. These new networking technologies are designed to provide deep coverage of hard-to-reach places and support massive numbers of low-throughput, ultra-low-cost devices with low power consumption and optimized network interfaces.

Should the prediction of tens of billions of IoT devices come true, then LPWAN base stations could be supporting hundreds of thousands of concurrent device connections.

Important Role for Processors and Memory

More connected devices mean more data is created every second, which is uploaded, stored, processed, and shared. The abundance of sensors — including temperature, pressure, direction, speed, weight, paces, heart beats, and light intensity — will generate a flood of information to transmit. Continuous wireless data transmission requires far too much energy for battery-powered applications. One solution is to use powerful, yet low-power microcontrollers to pre-process sensor data and thus reduce the volume of data to be transmitted. However, efficient processing necessitates greater local memory capacity for stored data to be processed and programs to execute.

To further reduce the frequency of data transmissions, designers will make use of local data buffering. Systems on Chips (SoCs) — monolithic integration of memory in silicon — eliminate the need for a variety of separate components, although memory integration can lower chip yield and increase fabrication cost. Resistive RAM (RRAM) technology promises easier integration with CMOS logic circuitry compared with conventional flash memory.

IoT applications can gain tremendous benefits from the use of fast, low-power nonvolatile memory that can be easily integrated in very large capacities on a single SoC. Such devices may be able to operate for years without a battery charge or replacement.

IoT Platform in the Future

The rapid evolution of the IoT market has caused an explosion in the number and variety of IoT solutions. Significantly for the Smart Grid, a wide range of software platforms are now available, intended to reduce the cost and development time for IoT solutions by offering standardized components that can be shared across industry verticals to integrate devices, networks, and applications. Most of these IoT platforms can be categorized as connectivity-management, device-management, or application-enablement platforms, although many products offer overlapping functionality.

Globally, many electric power utilities are in a position to leverage these capabilities and the significant advances in distributed intelligence and analytics as they implement their grid modernization strategies. Ultimately, these strategies will connect to broader opportunities beyond operational efficiency, such as those of the Smart City.

For now, much work remains to be done as fragmentation and uncertainty have not been satisfactorily addressed. Security, reliability, and privacy issues are unresolved as are business models and regulatory regimes. All players and stakeholders in the IoT face critical decisions on the way forward. It is time to fundamentally rethink the technology strategy, business models, and product design — and involve regulators and others in the debate.

In the age of the IoT, we must keep up with the latest technology trends and enable new IoT applications that reach beyond connections and truly bring the power of action and intelligence to field-level devices.

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