By Kirk Byles, Rajant Corp.
A utility’s prime purpose is to deliver reliable and cost-effective power using a grid that is for the most part a legacy infrastructure that moves energy from a power plant to a home or business. Many of the operational processes for maintaining and repairing that grid are legacy as well, and involve manual installations, adjustments and repairs, all of which are dependent on a field workforce that manages day-to-day operations as well as outages. This approach is not where the future lies, however.
Networks are aging and utilities are looking for the next big thing to drive efficiency and profitability while also increasing customer satisfaction. A Deloitte report, “Getting smart grid customers plugged in: Motivating change through mobile and social technology,” says that as the U.S. transitions to a smart grid, electric utilities face what might be the biggest change in the industry since the industry coalescing around alternating current (AC) as the U.S. standard. This shift will bring about not only a technical revolution, but will result in major changes for the energy consumer. To maintain and grow their customer base, utilities must adopt a new strategic approach to customer engagement to drive greater levels of commitment.
Mobile technologies are part of that technical revolution, and are becoming an attractive way to move the office into the field and generate reliable, real-time data. Mobile technologies can help a utility increase its efficiency and customer satisfaction by allowing utilities to take a proactive, instantaneous approach to maintenance and operations. Utilities can replace units within days or even hours rather than weeks during challenging scenarios like outages-a constant threat as weather events and temperatures become more extreme.
The Outage Problem: Standard vs. Mobile Technology
Outages are almost always unplanned, and the typical outage-to-restoration process involves several steps with long lead times. Multiple field visits might be necessary to identify, locate and fix the problem; an inspection crew might be sent out to track down the problem, then return to headquarters and report its findings to a service crew, which then would go out to repair the issue.
A lot of guesswork might be involved in this process in addition to multiple trips to and from the site. The operations center might be unable to provide much assistance due to lack of up-to-the-minute knowledge; information would be collected and compiled from multiple sources at different points in the process, and analysis would be limited due to lack of integrated information. This communication breakdown can result in longer repair times, which lead to longer customer outages.
A mobile grid, on the other hand, has a much more streamlined process. Vehicles are equipped with Wi-Fi-enabled laptops and handheld monitoring devices. The in-vehicle computing platform and vehicle network can be used to store field maps, detailed engineering diagrams or schematics, and best practices and procedures. Field technicians can plug into their devices, pull up the most current data and send their own findings back to the operations center or other field technicians.
Everyone connected can give and get real-time information, enabling an end-to-end view of the detailed outage process and leading to timely analysis and decision-making. Instead of needing a senior engineer to show up at each site to ensure everything is done correctly, the engineer can stay at the operations center and send information to multiple technicians in the field to speed up the repair process while the technicians can relay their information back to headquarters for analysis. Location- and terrain-specific information can take into account outage type, traffic times and closest available crew, optimizing dispatch decisions.
Kinetic Mesh as a Mobile Technology
Kinetic mesh, which employs multiple radio frequencies and any-node-to-any-node capabilities to instantaneously route data via the best available traffic path and frequency, is a technology that’s helping mobilize power grid operations. Each node serves as singular infrastructure, which enables all devices and the network itself to be mobile.
In a standard network, one tower might cover a certain residential location. If that tower goes down, all the houses lose connectivity, and no connectivity anywhere means maintenance employees can no longer use that connection.
In a kinetic mesh network, there is no single point of failure. If one tower goes down, the network instantaneously reroutes around any failure and crews can still connect to the grid to perform maintenance during an outage.
When utility workers need to perform service calls, they can connect to the network via any Wi-Fi-enabled device, as the kinetic mesh can act as a Wi-Fi access point. In addition, it is not only on fixed structures that nodes communicate; kinetic mesh also can be deployed on utility trucks or any other mobile asset.
These networks can transmit significant amounts of data-up to 300 MB-and provide flexibility and stable communications in environments with high demands for connecting people, devices and assets. Field crews and the operations center remain constantly connected and can transmit real-time data back and forth on a reliable platform, helping optimize the repair process during an outage.
The Benefits of Going Mobile
An electric utility must stay current on emerging technologies to provide a robust infrastructure based on integrated, accurate data. Doing so allows both the utility and its customers to benefit. The utility can run a much more efficient and profitable network and make better use of its employees’ time, while customers will see lower energy bills and less downtime during outages.
Mobile technologies such as kinetic mesh can enable seamless communications between field devices, crews and the operations center, allowing a utility to react to outages quickly and proactively.
Kirk Byles is senior vice president of sales and marketing at Rajant Corp., a private wireless network provider and mobile networking pioneer. He can be reached at email@example.com