Technology

The Emerging “Energy IoT”

 By Andrew Burger

Seismic shifts are taking place in power markets and industry in the U.S., E.U. and around the world. Faced with policy and regulatory reforms that call on them to rapidly and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, power utilities are also being challenged to keep up with rapid advances, sharply falling costs and growth in use of renewable energy and smart grid technologies. Recognizing the ¨writing on the wall,¨ they’re turning to the latest information and communications technologies (ICT) in a bid to maintain their position at the apex of the power industry pyramid. Such efforts place strictly regulated, conservatively run utilities at the center of fast-moving ICT trends such as cloud computing, ¨Big Data¨ and the ¨Internet of Things.¨ Andrew Burger explains the utility’s efforts in the midst of a period of unprecedented industry change…

Seismic shifts are taking place in power markets and industry in the U.S., E.U. and around the world. Faced with policy and regulatory reforms that require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, power utilities are also being challenged to keep up with rapid advances, sharply falling costs and growth in use of renewable energy, energy storage and smart grid technologies.

Besides lobbying to forestall regulatory reforms that would open up power markets to new entrants and power technologies, utilities are responding in proactive ways. Recognizing the ¨writing on the wall,¨ they’re turning to the latest information and communications technologies (ICT) in a bid to maintain their position at the apex of the power industry pyramid. Such efforts place strictly regulated, conservatively run utilities at the center of fast-moving ICT trends such as cloud computing, ¨Big Data¨ and the ¨Internet of Things.¨

Developments at Duke Energy, the largest investor-owned power utility in the U.S., highlight the trend’s breadth and depth. The owner-operator of power plants in six states, Duke is investing around $80 million to add new connected devices, networking and decision-support software to critical equipment. Having installed 20,000 wireless sensors and supporting ICT at its power plants in North and South Carolina, real-time data is flowing over networks and enabling employees to detect and respond to problems before they develop into serious threats.

Duke’s not stopping there, and it isn’t alone. Power utilities in the U.S. are investing more in research and development (R&D). They’re also opening their doors to startups and other vendors that have developed new, innovative power and energy ICT.

The Internet of Things is changing our world

The Emerging ¨Energy Internet of Things¨

AutoGrid Systems is a pioneer in applying the latest machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and ¨Big Data¨ analytics in the power industry. Its Energy Data Platform (EDP) affords utilities granular, real-time views of equipment and conditions across power grids and right on through to the fast-growing population of connected equipment and devices installed in vehicles, homes and businesses.

This sort of scope, scale and degree of detail is unprecedented. Deployment is radically changing the way utilities produce and distribute electricity and transforming an industry in which technology and business models haven’t changed much in 100 years. And it’s beginning to have a similar impact on the customer side of the electric meter.

¨We see a huge opportunity revolving around the ´Energy Internet of Things,´¨ John McLean, AutoGrid’s director of product marketing, explained in an interview. ¨We’re tightly focused on providing utilities the tools they need to leverage data from connected equipment and devices to improve grid reliability and resiliency, enhance customer engagement or monetize distributed assets, whether it’s renewable power generation, energy storage, smart inverters, EVs or home appliances and devices.¨

Taking all installations of its cloud-based EDP into account, AutoGrid systems are processing data from 10 million smart meters, 200,000 customers and over 300 megawatts of distributed energy. That includes DR programs that span a variety of automated pricing and behavioral programs across all customer classes — residential, commercial and industrial — as well as asset classes — energy storage, solar, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants, EV chargers, smart thermostats and others. “If it’s a smart device or piece of equipment a utility wants to connect to, our technology can access and leverage data from it,¨ McLean commented.

AutoGrid’s EDP has been used successfully by utilities in several pioneering smart grid projects. Austin Energy, for example, is using its demand response (DR) functionality to aggregate and analyze real-time data from the first program that allowed customers to choose their smart thermostats. In the Pacific Northwest, Bonneville Power Authority (BPA) successfully used EDP to carry out a regional grid-scale DR and adaptive power management project.

These pioneering projects, McLean pointed out, ¨aren’t just about making sure the technology works, but giving utilities, as well as their customers, the ability to create and derive value from new products and services.¨

The emerging ¨Energy Internet of Things¨ holds out the promise of safer, more efficient, reliable and resilient power plants and grids

Duke Energy’s $80MM Smart Generation Program

Launched in 2012, Duke’s Smart Generation program entails installing $80 million worth of wireless sensors, networks and software across its entire fleet of coal, natural gas-fired and hydroelectric power plants by 2017. The overarching task and objective, Duke’s general manager of technical programs Michael Reid explained, ¨is to apply sensors on large, critical equipment in order to obtain data and, ultimately, make better decisions.¨

To date, ¨more than 20,000 wireless sensors – each about the size of a cellphone − have been attached to turbines, generators, transformers and other major equipment,¨ Duke announced in a news release.”

“Transferring emerging new technologies for use in all its coal, natural gas-fired and hydroelectric power plants is expected to improve safety, efficiency, reliability and resiliency. That will ultimately translate into lower costs for consumers,” Reid continued.

¨It’s really about equipment health – being able to see how it’s performing and taking appropriate actions. In the past, employees had to collect data manually. Whereas they used to check vibrations say once a month, with sensors they can see that data every second or every few seconds.¨

The Smart Generation program team recognized early on that they could benefit by working with energy ICT vendors and industry peers. As a result, one important aspect of Reid’s job entails being a new technology ¨evangelist,¨ both inside and outside the organization.

For example, Duke is working closely with National Instruments and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). ¨The idea of the ‘Internet of Things’ has really taken off in recent years,¨ he commented. ¨Even the iPhone 6S has something like 16 sensors in it – why not use that technology to look after assets worth thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars?¨

Reid’s message has been gaining traction among Duke utility employees, as well as within industry organizations and among peers. ¨We’re trying to build momentum in our industry, and we’ve been successful in that we´re working together to advance development and use of new technologies,¨ he said.

High Stakes

“To install sensors and network connections to 50-60 nodes – data acquisition computers – and a server in a single coal plant, and then to our central headquarters, well, something on the order of $1.2 million sounds reasonable,¨ Reid elaborated. Labor is the single largest component, he added, typically accounting for around 75 percent of total project costs.

Boosting management ¨buy-in,¨ Duke is starting to realize significant cost savings. Furthermore, in addition to its regulated utility companies, Duke’s emerging technologies group is fostering new energy technology transfer across the holding company’s business lines, including its Commercial Services Portfolio and International Energy groups.

So far in 2015, Duke has avoided around $16 million in equipment repairs from the Smart Generation program, Reid said. ¨That’s the beauty of this technology: we can diagnose and schedule repairs much more efficiently…And these cost savings are conservative.¨

The emerging ¨Energy Internet of Things¨ holds out the promise of safer, more efficient, reliable and resilient power plants and grids. There’s much more to be gained, however. ¨State of the art¨ energy and power ICT can help transform utilities from being the largest contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions to the primary agents reducing them.

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.