By Mike Bell, Silver Spring Networks
Much has been made in recent years about the transformative effects the Internet of Things (IoT)-the growing array of networked devices that includes everything from smart appliances to heart monitoring implants to driverless cars-will have on society. Utilities have already played a leading role in the successful deployment of some of these technologies, which puts them in a unique position to take advantage of the next generation of the IoT as it advances. I’d wager that utilities are the most critical player in leading this transformational change as more and more IoT devices are connected, benefiting not only consumers, but also cities, businesses and the planet.
Utilities Already are Leading IoT Service Providers
Estimates show that there will be 50 billion connected IoT devices by 2020. For at least a decade, many utilities have been deploying two-way communications technology to support remote grid operations. With many mature smart grid programs already in place in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Brazil, Mexico and in pockets of Europe, utilities are connecting millions of smart meters, switches, street lights and other sensors to help improve grid operations and increase reliability. They also are providing customers with real-time, interactive communication tools. Utilities that have yet to deploy advanced technology now are in a position to learn from their peers that were early adopters of IoT development. These utilities include:
- ComEd, which has powered Chicago and northern Illinois for more than a century. It is investing $2.6 billion to help modernize the state’s infrastructure. ComEd has already improved its grid reliability for customers and avoided 500,000 interruptions per year through the use of smart switches that can redirect outages, as well as more than 4 million customers connections through smart metering and a smart street light project in various neighborhoods in the city. In addition, the utility intends to leverage the same network connecting these devices for a whole range of smart city devices and applications to improve Chicago’s economic viability and livability.
- Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which has been a vocal advocate of developing a “Grid of Things” for tomorrow. PG&E, which services one of the largest networks in the world across a service territory the size of Great Britain, achieves 600,000 remote operations annually, as well as other benefits. PG&E’s President Tony Early wants to expand its existing grid to connect devices including electric vehicles, rooftop solar, battery storage and additional smart appliances.
- Florida Power & Light, which has deployed a multi-application network connecting more than 4.5 million electric meters. FP&L processes 3 billion readings per month, allowing it to eliminate 42,000 truck rolls annually through remote outage checking and decrease outage resolution from two hours to less than two minutes. The network also supports distribution automation functionality and the world’s largest connected street lights program, both of which will increase grid reliability even further.
The next generation of the IoT will see progressive utilities further leverage these devices. Utilities will continue to use the robust data and two-way communication networks that make their connectivity possible to extend infrastructure initiatives in communities and cities. In the process, utilities will open new streams of potential revenue, forge deeper community ties and well-position themselves as leaders for tomorrow’s IoT opportunities.
Utilities Already Have the Infrastructure in Place
We live in an interconnected world where the winners in each industry typically are those that have led the adoption of technology. We’ve seen this happen in every great technological revolution-from transportation to telecommunications to industrial manufacturing and the Internet. These revolutions have greatly benefited consumers and the growth and longevity of commercial industry.
The reason that the aforementioned industries have been successful in creating networks is because their foundations are built on open standards. Similarly, smart grid networks are now being built using open, globally recognized IP standards-in contrast to early proprietary networks that ended up with isolated, stranded assets. These open standards networks provide utilities with endless possibilities through intelligence at the edge of the grid and the ability to add infinite numbers of grid-edge devices in the future.
The true leap forward, though, has come from more recent, rapid advances in wireless network technology and the plummeting cost of processing power. Instead of limited, single-purpose networks that connect “dumb” devices to the central station, today smart grid and IoT networks create massively scaled, distributed computing platforms. These systems exploit the reliability of wireless mesh networking that allow devices to connect to each other, not just to centralized network hubs. This “mesh” of connections makes the network scalable-each time new devices are added network reliability is strengthened, rather than weakened.
Utilities’ Community Connection Will Drive Collaboration and Innovation
Utilities are the heartbeat of their communities and cities, connecting the people who live in various neighborhoods to their larger community. By working more closely with the public sector and educating them on the benefits of proven IoT technology, utilities can proactively help city decision-makers leverage their existing network infrastructure to rapidly modernize aging city assets. This could include services like smart water networks, electric vehicle chargers, bike kiosks, smart parking, weather and pollution sensors and smart street lights and traffic controls. Every city has some challenges that can be readily solved by working in partnership with their utility counterparts. Opening these platforms to other commercial enterprises and innovative developers will expand this value even further.
With infrastructure and the proven results in place, utilities can do more than passively wait for the future. There’s a popular saying in Silicon Valley that your great idea could become someone else’s invention. IoT connected by open standards-based platforms will create an innovation flywheel. As ubiquitous connectivity drives smarter devices, a new era of real-time data driven applications will give entrepreneurs and startups the sensor data to create new IoT applications for health and safety, transportation and other public infrastructure that can positively impact citizens’ quality of life. With help from their communities’ utility, entrepreneurs can be inspired to solve challenges with innovative leadership and projects.
Mike Bell is President, CEO, and member of the Board of Directors for Silver Spring Networks