looking real world examples smart meters smart grid
My previous post talked about the increasing penetration of smart meters around the world and explored a few ways in which we can use the data coming out of them. But it isn’t just meters that are getting smarter. The entire energy backbone and energy distribution network in many countries is being instrumented and is starting to send back large quantities of real-time operational data.
This smart grid, as it is often called, can involve anything from massive high voltage transformers to gas pipelines to even the corrosion resistant paint that is applied on outdoor equipment. Again, as in the case of smart meters, a wealth of data is available at our fingertips. Yet it is not the existence of this data but what we do with it that makes all the difference.
A simple Google search on “Smart Grid Analytics” will produce enough bedtime reading for the next year. However, real-world examples of effective use of smart grid data are, for the moment, few and far between. Here, I’d like to share some interesting examples that I have explored recently:
Managing equipment health – In most parts of the world, the energy grid is several decades old and filled with aging equipment. But intelligent sensor networks and big data analytics are giving these grids a new lease on life. Large assets, such as transformers and transmission towers, can be equipped with dozens or even hundreds of sensors that monitor parameters ranging from oil temperatures and gas levels to things like the rate of metal corrosion and the surrounding environmental conditions.
Measuring all of these parameters is not new. But the ability to transmit and analyze this data quickly and cheaply is. Grid operators use this data to be smarter about deciding when something needs to be serviced or when a part needs to be replaced. The real value to grid operators is in performing maintenance on their assets at the right time – not too late once it has already broken down but not too early either when they can still squeeze a little more use out of it. Predictive maintenance, as this is often called, is big topic in a number of industries, and it is starting to come of age in the utilities sector as well.
Automatic leak detection – A natural extension of predictive maintenance is the use of sensors, cameras and analytics to detect leaks in gas pipelines and high-voltage electric wires. Heavy-duty algorithms and analytics software are used to identify trends in sensor data or look for patterns in camera images that could indicate a leak in gas pipelines. I know of a company in the UK that uses a similar technique to detect when tree branches touch or fall on electric wires and to identify exactly which segment of the local grid needs repairing. The benefits in terms of increased safety and prevention of expensive leaks are clear to see.
Visualizing the grid – I recently attend a presentation by the head of analytics for a large grid operator in the Netherlands. He compared the traditional energy grid to a river where electricity is fed in at the top. It then flows down through the grid and finally ends up in our homes and offices where we consume it. This is a one-to-many relationship where there is one source and many consumers. However, the energy grid of today looks a little different. Many of us have solar panels on our rooftops, and we feed energy back to the grid. The same goes for wind power, bio-gas and other sources of onsite energy generation.
The image of a river flowing down doesn’t hold true anymore because the energy link from grid into our homes has become a two-way street. This has big implications for utility companies and grid operators. Mapping out the quantity, quality and location of energy sources on the grid is critical to managing it effectively and ensuring supply meets demand efficiently. Grid operators and utility companies are turning to data from the smart grid and smart meters to help them do this. This has also spawned a number of companies that are trying to build software and visualization tools that will help make sense of all the data.
Starting today I will be at European Utility Week – one of the largest conferences and exhibitions of the year focused on utilities. I’m hoping to get a glimpse of the future of utilities there and will come back and write about it in the coming weeks.