Data is the linchpin of an intelligent power grid

Image by Amy C from Pixabay.

By Bob Karschnia, CEO and President of Sentient Energy

The task is clear. The roadmap is here.

Never before has the word “infrastructure” worked its way into so many conversations buzzing beyond the confines of the power industry. Colleagues, families and friends debate the merits of investing in roads, bridges, broadband, electric vehicles, smart cities and more—all included in the recently passed, massive bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Consumers get it. They’re more informed than ever, particularly regarding changing power needs and their impact on our nation’s power system. The democratization of power generation is on the rise as many of us have become net generators, not just consumers of power.

That means there has never been a better time to tackle, head-on, the challenges of our aging power distribution infrastructure. And it’s never been clearer just how to secure a future of reliable energy in the face of fluctuating and rising demand.

It all starts with a four-letter word: “data.”

Data is the linchpin of the future of energy. This vital asset is our most powerful arrow in the quiver. We need only to exploit data fully — indeed, intelligently — to stabilize and fortify an increasingly complex infrastructure of energy distribution and management.

The path forward centers on leveraging opportunities in three key areas: smart technology, data analytics and strategic planning for an energy-hungry future. Before delving into the future state, let’s look at where we are today.

Electricity consumption is expected to surge by as much as 38% by the year 2050, thanks to increased electrification across all sectors of the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. New patterns of power usage, demand fluctuations and bi-directional flow that comes with increased adoption of renewable energy, storage and electric vehicles will continue to overtax today’s distribution infrastructure.

In the face of these new and escalating challenges is a stark reality about the power grid’s physical assets: The vast majority (70%) of this nation’s power transformers and transmission lines are more than 25 years old and some 60% of today’s circuit breakers are at least 30 years old, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

A bright light on the horizon is that some of the largest utilities in the nation recognize the challenges and opportunities and are taking steps to improve infrastructure to build an intelligent, next-generation power distribution grid. Here’s how the visionaries of energy’s future are mapping the journey forward. While the blueprint is not yet complete, these three areas of focus warrant serious consideration:

Invest in Smart Sensors

Intelligent sensors provide visibility and real-time data needed to stay abreast of the performance of the power grid, to the edge. With intelligent line sensors, energy operators can track surges in demand, determine whether existing capacity can meet that demand and pre-emptively pinpoint potential trouble spots before outages occur helping mitigate safety risks like downed lines in a wildfire prone area. The hurricane season in the Atlantic is upon us and a La Nina pattern looks highly probable this fall. When power outages inevitably occur, quick restoration is paramount.  Intelligent sensors provide visibility into the trouble spots, enabling that quick restoration.

Devise a Data Analytics Strategy

It’s not sufficient to merely collect data. The industry has done that for eons, producing a fractured, confusing pool of information that’s too overwhelming to decipher. What’s needed to support tomorrow’s intelligent power distribution grid is a robust data analytics strategy that sorts through the wealth of information and elicits valuable insights to support decision-making and investments.

Extracting such knowledge from historical data, real-time data and predictive analytics guides strategic grid operation and asset management. Data-driven decisions allow for informed prioritization of limited resources like maintenance crews, equipment maintenance and replacement, and vegetation management efforts—the single largest O&M expense for most utilities.

The big win and first-mover advantage of a data and analytics strategy: unprecedented agility to be proactive to fast-shifting demands instead of cross-your-fingers reactive.

Keep Eyes Wide Open

The third, and arguably most critical, step of this three-point action plan is crafting a strategy now to support future demand. That means assessing known variables and their impact while taking the bold step to imagine and confront the unknowables. Electric vehicles, smart cities and homes, new modes of public transportation as well as the need to support bi-directional flow of power all depend upon an intelligent grid and modern technology and innovation like Internet of Things (IoT).

Utilities that are leveraging data and analytics today are already ahead on the learning curve and better positioned to support the rapidly changing future.  Complacency now will make it more difficult to catch up as the speed of change increases.

Like three legs of a barstool, each of these three initiatives needs reinforcement if the ultimate goal is to build a strong energy distribution ecosystem that outperforms what we have today. Utilities need to:

  • Confront strengths and weaknesses. No one denies it’s a daunting task, but a comprehensive audit is the only way to reveal gaps and identify which aspects of the grid infrastructure are in most urgent need of upgrade.
  • Enlist the experts. This is uncharted territory and many utilities lack the domain knowledge to decipher the data on their own. Make use of experts who can educate operators about modern technology options available and help build institutional knowledge so your team is better-equipped to make informed decisions in the future to drive business performance.
  • Embrace proactive over reactive. Decision-making practices are engrained in the operating culture of a business. Because these processes have been refined over time and woven into every business activity, they are difficult to abandon. Still, now is the time to embrace proactive decision-making driven by data. Such re-tooling is a bold but necessary move. Those willing to accept new directions that debunk long-held beliefs will be more nimble going forward. For example, embracing predictive maintenance practices informed by real-time data from the field, rather than reactive maintenance, enables power companies to better respond to fast-changing demands.

The urgency is here. The roadmap and enabling tools, thankfully, are here, too. Forward-thinking utilities are leading by their example, their investments and their commitment to leverage innovative technologies to ensure a more efficient, stable, safe and powerful future.

About the Author

Bob Karschnia is CEO and President of Sentient Energy, leading the Sentient Energy team by focusing on customer partnership and success, new product development and overall company strategy. Prior to joining Sentient Energy, Karschnia was the vice president and general manager of Emerson Automation Solutions’ Pervasive Sensing business. He helped create, grow and lead Emerson’s pervasive sensing product/software/solution/service offerings and coordinated the Industrial Internet of Things initiatives across the company. Early in the development of wireless technology, Bob drove the standardization of the WirelessHART communications protocol and helped define new technologies aimed at solving reliability, efficiency, environment and safety problems in the industry.

Before joining Emerson, Bob developed rotating equipment control systems at Compressor Controls Corporation and satellite control systems for Lockheed Martin. He also served as an officer in the United States Air Force working on satellite control and communications systems.

Mr. Karschnia has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Minnesota and a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Colorado.

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