New technologies make big contributions to the deregulated power industry

John Williams, FocalPoint Group

Our country’s need for high-quality and reliable energy is emphasized by today’s information economy. Computer technology will create ever-increasing demands on existing power lines and production facilities. All the while, dereg-ulation, environmental concerns and utility economic uncertainty have impacted the nation’s energy infrastructure. Furthermore, the existing energy infrastructure is outdated and falling into decay. More than 40 percent of the nation’s electric power plants were built before 1960, and more than 65 percent were built before 1970, according to the Energy Information Administration. Forty-eight percent of the installed transformer banks are reaching retirement, and a major part of the transmission grid is more than 50 years old.

Numerous restrictions are impeding the construction of replacement generators, causing a potentially disastrous shortfall in how our country can meet the demand for electricity. All this is happening during a time when many states have been surpassing the safe and economically viable limits for continuous energy production. While serious action needs to take place to repair the current state of the infrastructure, new M2M (machine-to-machine; mobile-to-machine) technologies are available as important tools to drastically improve the state of the industry.

Across the entire energy production and delivery chain, M2M technologies are quietly embedding themselves into the fabric of power plants, energy grids, meters and appliances. In incremental and often invisible ways, the latest computing and communications technologies will have a positive impact on the future of energy services. These technologies may be the only way we can hope to surmount the problems plaguing our 1950s-era energy system. Here are four examples of many new M2M technologies that can help the power industry.

“- GE power plant software: In many places, power plants are running at full capacity to meet the increasing energy demands within a region. These power plants require 99 percent uptime and are wearing through equipment more quickly and inefficiently. Without proper maintenance and monitoring, these plants face possible failures and shut-downs. Fortunately, existing M2M technologies are making it easier and more affordable to track the performance and costs of running equipment and power plants. Equipment monitoring software and sensors are becoming valuable tools in determining the health of an electro-mechanical system. GE’s Power Generation Software, for instance, provides online monitoring and optimization solutions. The system helps plant staff to predict the most profitable way to run a plant, and to measure and track plant performance changes. This software helps utilities create a cost-benefit analysis to get at the true costs of operating key pieces of equipment in a power plant.

“- Telemetric remote access: Within the transmission grid, power transformers and power lines stretch across remote terrain. When a power line goes down, it can be difficult to isolate where the failure point might exist. Every time power lines are down, millions of dollars are wasted in lost productivity. Remote sensors and diagnostic technology improve the ability of power companies to test, locate and reroute traffic on power lines. Telemetric provides remote, wireless communications between field devices and enterprise applications. Telemetric monitors switches, alarms, battery chargers, meters and any other contact closure style inputs. The single phase voltage monitor provides real time feedback of actual voltages. M2M services like Telemetric’s proactively identify problems in the grid, making for less expensive downtime.

“- Schlumberger meters: One of the most important functions of an energy company is to track end users’ consumption of electricity. Currently, companies send out employees to visually read meters. Not only is this method costly from a labor and vehicle perspective, but it can also be an inaccurate and slow way to capture key data points. While some companies in the power space have attempted remote meter reading, Schlumberger has developed a solution that keeps truck rolls to a minimum, and with better results. By using power line carrier technology to provide comprehensive two-way communications over the existing electricity supply network, the system enables utilities to implement automated remote meter reading extremely cost-effectively. The Schlumberger system is comprised of three main elements: a host system running Schlumberger supervisory software, one or more data concentrator units, and the utility’s meters at the customers’ premises, fitted with Schlumberger meter interface units. This distributed implementation of full client/server architecture provides utilities with a viable energy management solution, and facilitates easy integration with customer information systems. This solution is designed to pay for itself through better and more accurate meter reporting, less truck rolls, and better and quicker customer service.

“- emWare device management: Lastly, energy management services need to reach to the devices that are driving consumption. In many cases, these devices and machines can become outdated or are being used during unnecessary times. In addition, if utilities are able to provide curtailment agreements with end users, the utility will be in a much better position to prevent blackouts and brownouts during peak consumption periods by turning off or reducing the power consumption of non-critical devices (such as air conditioners or lighting systems). One company, emWare, has developed a line of products and services that can curtail energy usage in homes and small businesses. emWare gives electric utilities an unobtrusive way to manage energy usage in the customer site, reward customers who participate in curtailment programs with special incentives and service programs, and still leave customers with override control of their heating and cooling systems. Often when utilities need to curtail just 10 percent of consumption during peak periods, remote management systems like emWare’s make it happen.

When considering the billions of dollars it takes to build a new power plant and install new transmission lines, some utilities are looking to use M2M technologies that make their operations smarter and more efficient. While utilities have had little incentive to optimize their infrastructure, the new economic reality will force many to reconsider their options. New technologies can provide substantial support for the utility companies in this deregulated, environmentally concerned era.

Williams is managing director for The FocalPoint Group, which provides market intelligence and strategic perspectives regarding new technologies and their implementation for businesses in highly competitive arenas.

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