The Internet of Things (IoT) and increasing distributed energy resources and connected devices at the edge of the grid are transforming the electric utility industry. The sheer numbers of devices are phenomenal: smart meter deployments in the United States alone were projected last year to reach 70 million by the end of the year, and to reach 90 million by 2020. And its not just smart meters in the new electricity network: utilities are also increasingly deploying smart field sensors, and end consumers and their utilities are both adding distributed energy resources (DER), smart thermostats and the like to the edge of the grid in record numbers.
The utility industry is expected to drive exponential growth of new IoT applications to communicate machine-to-machine (M2M) both to these new field devices along the distribution grid as well as to consumer energy technology devices at the edge of the grid.
Integration and analysis of the real-time data across these devices and sensors have become essential for 21st century electric grid operations. But, as each smart device has its own unique requirements for maintenance, inspection, firmware upgrades and security, utilities are struggling to manage the lifecycle of these assets in a single, centralized way.
At the same time, cloud technologies are seeing increased adoption by utilities seeking to reduce spending on technology infrastructure, keep up with the latest technology capabilities, improve the flexibility of their IT infrastructure, and reduce time-consuming IT tasks to shift focus back to core competencies in essence, to shift from maintenance mode to innovation mode. A shift to the cloud provides immediate benefits, including scalability, data storage, and real-time data analysis, as well as a longer-term, fundamental change in the way the enterprise deals with more quickly leveraging multiple data inputs for new insights.
An Impressive Marriage
The pairing of IoT and cloud is a logical one: IoT provides a new data environment and a wealth of new data from a variety of sources, and the cloud provides an agile, flexible, scalable infrastructure platform to support it.
Two of the leading factors in the adoption of cloud and IoT technologies by utilities are asset performance management and consumer energy technology integration. Utilities can embrace IoT and consumer energy technologies to support strategic interaction with edge-of-grid devices, both to monitor and manage asset health and to optimize the distribution grid. Further, utilities can support consumer energy technologies as a grid resource to keep costs competitive with alternative resources.
What is the Value Proposition?
The value proposition in embracing an IoT/cloud pairing is straightforward. It provides the utility with the ability to:
- Translate vast quantities of sensor-based information into action the faster, the better.
- Securely connect devices, analyze real-time and historical data, and integrate to back-end applications.
- Enable the enterprise to deliver innovative new services faster and with less risk.
- Track crew locations and remote parts inventories to more efficiently dispatch technicians in the field.
- Find risks of device failures faster, with increased visibility into the age and reliability of each device.
- Proactively adjust, update, and repair smart grid and IoT devices as needed.
Further, by leveraging a scalable, future-proof IoT cloud platform, utilities can use the most up-to-date IT infrastructure as a service, alleviating the need to continually maintain and upgrade older in-house systems and house vast volumes of data on-premises, all at a reduced total cost of ownership.
What does this look like in practice? Lets look at a few use cases.
Use Case: Sensor-Based Device Management
In addition to being able to receive real-time information from smart sensors along electric distribution lines, its important to be able to use that information to ensure real-time reliability of the distribution network.
Utilities manage the flow of electricity through thousands of miles of networks of wires. There are millions of meters, monitors and sensors that are used to bring visibility to these extensive systems. All the data from these devices needs to be retrieved, read, and analyzed to provide information about the condition of the networks. Information must be readily accessible to any computer or mobile device at the fingertips of any operator at any location within the system. By utilizing cloud and IoT technologies, utilities can maximize the capabilities of the network, manage the data from the devices and optimize the flow of resources through their systems.
With automated processes occurring within the cloud, the utility has distributed intelligence throughout the system, right to the edges, enabling data and information to be available to operational teams whenever and wherever they need it.
Use case: Condition-Based Maintenance for DER
Earlier, I mentioned the ability to proactively adjust, update, and repair smart grid and IoT devices when necessary as an important value proposition. This ability should also extend to distributed energy resources (both utility- and customer-owned) at the edge of the grid, and relates directly to the management of these assets lifecycles, from the initial registration of the device on the grid, through its retirement or replacement.
DER can bring significant value to a utility if it can be controlled. Modern distribution management requires a data-centric approach to monitoring, control and optimization of both traditional distribution and edge-of-grid needs. This begins with the ability to model the generation output profile of each and every distributed energy resource, accounting for location, condition of use and other attributes unique to each asset.
DER and all other edge devices must be brought together on an IoT platform. Once the data is collected by a gateway, the information can then be used by the operator for advanced analytics and decision-making to optimally tune the assets. This allows the operator to optimize the capabilities of the DER in real time for the benefit of the system. The control and maintenance of these new generation assets is vital to the utility’s ability to provide reliable distribution management.
The use of an IoT cloud platform enables the integration of new and varied technology at the edge of the grid, such as renewable energy generation, at scale, without reliability risk. By pulling the visibility and control of these resources together, an operator can more effectively and efficiently manage the reliability of the network.
The Future Utility: A Way Forward
The addition of distributed energy resources to the utility distribution grid is also a new frontier for the industry. Sensor data will continue to be key to ensuring end-to-end visibility, as well as the means to model, manage, analyze, control and optimize DER. The Internet of Things provides the glue connecting all the pieces of the new distribution platform, and the cloud provides the environment for doing it quickly, with reduced risk and lower costs.
But traditional utility assets are benefitting, as well. Having millions of devices in the field with the ability to connect via a communications network to the utility, constantly producing volumes of data to be processed and analyzed, is transforming this industry. Being able to house and analyze all that data in the cloud, where it can be accessible as needed 24/7 by whomever within the utility needs to access it for different utility processes, from wherever they are, whether in the office or in the field, is a sea change.
The marriage of IoT and cloud technologies, then, provides the utility with the nimble, flexible ability to make the operators job of dealing with data from varied devices and vast networks more effective and efficient, all in a secure and proactive environment.
Brian Bradford is Vice President of Asset Solutions for the Utilities Global Business Unit of Oracle Corporation. Brian is responsible for the profit and loss of utility operational software applications and delivery. He has more than 20 years of experience in the utility space and joined Oracle from GE where he was GM of hosted software and analytic solutions. Brian has an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in Finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
For more information please visit www.oracle.com
 Cooper, A. 2016. Electric Company Smart Meter Deployments: Foundation for a Smart Grid. Edison Foundation Institute for Electric Innovation. 18 pp. http://www.edisonfoundation.net/iei/publications/Documents/Final%20Electric%20Company%20Smart%20Meter%20Deployments-%20Foundation%20for%20A%20Smart%20Energy%20Grid.pdf