IoT Oversight Keeps Power Flowing
By Chuck Moseley, Inmarsat
Utilities around the world are becoming increasingly smart about the state of their networks, thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). While some utilities are embarking on complete smart grid rollouts, others are making incremental improvements that are delivering a big difference in their ability to improve the health and reliability of their network through faster fault resolution.
Keeping a network up and running is important because downtime seriously impacts operations and often means lost revenue and dissatisfied customers. Downtime can occur for a number of reasons, including inclement weather such as high winds, flooding and lightning strikes. Motor vehicle accidents can knock down poles, causing outages. Aging infrastructure is also a big issue across utility networks, and monitoring for issues due to older equipment is driving significant adoption of IoT technologies.
Monitoring conditions throughout the network doesn’t just help resolve short-term issues, such as outages, it also helps utilities plan better for the longer term. The data gathered from devices throughout the network instantly makes utilities more proactive. By understanding the vulnerabilities in their networks that consistent monitoring can help uncover, utilities can better plan network upgrades, from both an operational and capital expenditure perspective. Understanding, for example, that an older transformer has had a series of smaller issues over a given period in time gives a utility the ability to schedule a replacement or repair before service is completely disrupted.
While a lot of attention is given to the equipment, connectivity is a significant piece of the IoT puzzle as well, because utilities look to monitor not only the network, but also all of the “moving parts” that support the network, such as service vehicles, for example.
With increased monitoring comes increased data, and that data is coming from everywhere-from smart meters in customers’ homes to power grid infrastructure such as transformers and reclosers and all the parts of the distribution network in between lines, reclosers and transformers. A large power grid can have hundreds of thousands of such touch points, which are being monitored and tracked. Some of these are in smaller, heavily populated urban areas, while others are found spread across large, oftentimes remote areas that cover hundreds of square miles. No two utility networks are the same.
Driven by the need for the flexibility, security and scalability to connect all of these devices across vast and diverse geographies with near-real time data collection and distributed intelligence at the edge, utilities require access to a communications network that is highly reliable and “always on.” Depending on the location and size of the network, utilities have a handful of connectivity options, such as cellular, low power wide area (LPWA) networks and satellite, among others. Of these myriad choices, satellite is the only high-availability and high-reliability connectivity option that can reach anywhere utilities use IoT. In recent years, satellite has become an increasingly important part of a utilities’ connectivity strategy because it works wherever they need it. It’s no longer being used as just a back-up to cellular or other connectivity choice, but also as a primary connectivity option in certain scenarios.
Uncovering Proof Points
There’s no doubt that utilities can benefit from IoT technologies throughout their networks, from smart meters at a customer premises all the way back to headquarters and remote offices or both. Monitoring, however, has become a critical element in improving network health by resolving issues quickly-oftentimes even before customers notice an issue.
Following are a few places where the impact of the IoT is making a difference:
“- Line monitoring: Lines are closest to a customer, and in the past, the first inkling that there might be an issue with service is a call from the customer. Issues with lines usually impact a smaller segment of customers than other parts of the network that are monitored. In some cases, only a single neighborhood or city block will experience an outage when a line is impacted. When monitored, IoT solutions can signal an issue and alert the utility even more quickly than its customers.
Faults or outages that occur because of inclement weather or an accident, such as a vehicle colliding with a pole, for example, can’t be predicted. Line degradation due to aging utility networks or other factors can be, however, and that’s where line monitoring capabilities can help.
As IoT technology has become more sophisticated, line monitoring has also become more advanced. Fault detection in the past was visual; a flashing light indicated a problem. If the fault was spotted before service degraded or disrupted, customers weren’t impacted. In today’s networks, however, many lines are underground, making a visual identification of an issue obsolete. With the IoT, fault detection is automated and faults can now be detected by IoT systems in real time and corrected before service disruption occurs. These advanced systems increase efficiency, improve reliability indicator scores, such as SAIDI and CAIDI, and provide data on self-correcting faults, so technicians can be sent to where they are really needed to prevent larger problems. Satellite connectivity can help utilities better monitor lines in remote areas across their network where cellular connectivity might not be available or is unreliable.
“- Recloser monitoring: Reclosers are key component of the overall health of the utility distribution network. They turn off electricity if an issue is detected, testing quickly to determine if the issue is resolved or if the electrical current needs to remain off until it is safe to resume service to a line. Reclosers are placed strategically throughout the network, allowing utilities to continually manage and monitor the network automatically and efficiently via the IoT. Reclosers help isolate dangerous situations and then re-route or shut down an electrical current before a substation is impacted.
Using IoT technology, reclosers provide real-time data to the utility’s network operations center, giving the utility the intelligence and visibility it needs to:
– Respond quickly to an event
– Reconfigure systems following the event
– Detect and report fluctuations in voltage, service demands and outages
– Minimize the potential for damage by limiting impact
– Reduce time per customer outage
– Prioritize service restoration across impacted customers
– Decrease impact on revenue due to lost service
Satellite provides the high-availability connection from remote recloser sites to the utility’s wide area network (WAN), extending the reach of the WAN to improve surveillance and control.
“- Transformer monitoring: Transformers are one of the more visible parts of a utility network. They hang on a pole or are housed in a cabinet on the ground. They’re easy to see, so utilities have long relied on physical inspections to determine transformer condition and health. Unexpected failures caused by extreme weather, accidents or even incidents that occur during day-to-day operations cost utilities time and money. The IoT is transforming the way utilities approach transformer health, helping them be more proactive by providing real-time data on the status, condition and power quality of each transformer on the grid.
The goal is to detect small issues early, before they cause grid failures and costly service interruptions. The IoT helps utilities leverage this real-time data on the condition and operation of each transformer to make faster decisions and mitigate potential issues caused by weather, accidents, malfunctions or aging equipment.
In addition, the IoT gives utilities a better overall view of the health and risks to their transformer fleets, allowing them to better prioritize updates and make better decisions on capital expenditures, as well as operational and maintenance investments to help avoid costly, unplanned outages. Utilities can extract relevant data from transformers and interpret that data to enable smarter decision making that optimizes performance, improves safety and lowers costs.
Transformer monitoring often requires always-on, real-time connectivity, with up to 10-20 megabytes of data sent per month. This makes it a good match for L-band satellite connectivity.
Utilities are adopting IoT technologies at their own pace, but there’s no doubt that it’s benefitting both the companies and their customers. Real-time monitoring of lines, reclosers and transformers helps utilities spot issues and respond more quickly. IoT solutions, enabled by highly reliable satellite connectivity, provides a higher level of visibility, helping utilities reduce downtime, maximize revenue and increase customer satisfaction.
Chuck Moseley joined Inmarsat in January 2003 with more than 18 years’ experience in communications. As director of Internet of Everywhere, Chuck is responsible for Inmarsat’s portfolio of machine to machine (m2M) products and services worldwide. Prior to this role, he managed all North American SCADA communications customers and projects for Stratos (now part of Inmarsat). Moseley holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a master of sciences degree in telecommunications from Southern Methodist University.