Meet South Western Utility X: The ultimate digital utility

by Bryan Friehauf, Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Wind reaching 150 miles per hour. Massive flooding with 30 inches of rain. Widespread fires burning for days. Each scenario reads like one of the worst disasters a utility can confront. In the past, utilities would face one of these events in a blue moon. Now, extreme weather – brought on by climate change – has become a yearly occurrence. It challenges utilities’ ability to keep electricity flowing to customers during all hours and to respond to outages in a safe, timely manner.

With the right digital tools, utilities can minimize outage disasters, improve response times and keep their crews safe in the event of extreme weather and natural events. Let’s take a look at what a utility with fully integrated and digitalized operations that unapologetically embraces technology could look like. We’ll call it “South Western Utility X.”

Meet South Western Utility X

South Western Utility X has a fully digitalized operation. Every single employee, from the CEO to the field tech, is on board and trained in the technology.

Utility X has advanced algorithms crunching assets’ health, and automation and communications technology like MicroSCADA monitoring harmonic distortions and voltage drops. It has foldable solar arrays and sensors in substations. It has drones flying to inspect T&D infrastructure, geofences guiding workers on where to go and not go, and augmented reality screens providing critical information to operating teams.

Now, Utility X faces a lot of extreme weather challenges, from flooding to tornados to wildfires. At any given time, Utility X will have to deal with winds downing power lines, wildfires encroaching on substations, and roads flooding across the region.

It’s a very unsafe place to live, yet, Utility X has 1.2 million energy customers that need electricity now more than ever – our carbon-neutral future is an electrified future, afterall.

Keeping assets running

To keep power up and running, Utility X needs to first very closely track and maintain its assets’ health. A very large Internet of Things (IoT) network connects all its assets and provides operators with a real-time view of its infrastructure. They can view this network from anywhere, which proves very useful when the roads are flooded or covered in tree limbs and they can’t get into the main office.

The network provides Utility X with insights not only into the current health of its assets, but also into how weather conditions could impact them, such as if it’s an extremely hot day or if there’s another windstorm, which could destroy its solar panels. Feeding in data from its asset management software and its wireless wind anemometer infrastructure, Utility X creates a very robust tracker for solar panel care and stowing strategy.

The IoT network also allows Utility X to keep its assets running at maximum potential through proactive maintenance instead of time-based maintenance. For instance, Utility X now has enough time and insights to order parts it might need before an extreme weather event makes that impossible after the fact. It can also identify what exactly needs to be repaired without sending someone to inspect the asset, saving time and resources.

Meanwhile, software running in the background on the IoT network helps Utility X prioritize maintenance and reroute power as needed to keep operations online while assets are taken offline, either for expected maintenance or unexpectedly because of weather.

Dealing with disasters

While Utility X keeps its assets in tip-top shape, it still has a lot of disasters to mitigate. Thankfully, its advanced metering infrastructure captures power flows throughout the grid. When power isn’t running, Utility X knows immediately. Field managers can then send specialized crews out to handle repairs, based on insights from the assets flowing back into the system. Thanks to drones and geospatial overlay technology, field managers can guide crews safely to the repair sites, avoiding downed power lines.

Once a crew arrives at the site, if they need additional help, the field managers can loop in a remote specialist to provide instructions on repairs via augmented reality or give a second opinion.

Meanwhile, a fire surges toward a substation where the transformer’s windings sit in oil. Unfortunately, Utility X’s team isn’t able to keep a close eye on the fire as there’s no overhead view of it. Fortunately, sensors Utility X previously deployed along its T&D infrastructure pick up the increase in heat. It sends an automated notice to the fire department of the incoming fire so they can divert it. Meanwhile, all crews immediately receive an alert about where the fire has moved and a geofence is put up around the fire and its projected path to keep everyone safe and ensure crews don’t get trapped.

Digital tools unlock future opportunities

The above is only a snapshot of how software can merge with digitalized assets to help utilities proactively respond to extreme weather.

Due to growing global efforts to curb climate change, I hope we’ll never see the chaos South Western Utility X faces. However, we are dealing with more extreme weather events than ever before.

I see technology as one way utilities can mitigate and protect against those risks. Utilities have a difficult job ahead, but with the world embracing electricity to fight carbon emissions, we rely on utilities now more than ever. Minimizing the impact of weather events is critical to keep our world turning.

About the Author

Bryan Friehauf is the EVP and GM of Enterprise Software Solutions at Hitachi ABB Power Grids and has over 20 years of experience within the energy and software industry. Previously, Bryan was the General Manager for GE’s Asset Management business. Bryan holds a degree from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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