Smart Utilities: Coming in from the Cold

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Smart Utilities: Coming in from the Cold

Texas froze and the utilities stopped flowing. Gas supplies reduced by half and the electricity generators stopped turning. It seems polar conditions can happen anywhere, so how can smart utilities use IoT to ensure uninterrupted delivery to their customers?

by Gordon Feller

During the last decade, utility companies have been using their deployment of advanced metering – infrastructure (AMI) for little more than automating the collection of billing data using smart meters. Some utilities are now extending this to improve operational data management to get the most out of their investment. This not only improves daily processes like billing, contract management, and customer service, but also helps them to instantly find power outages, predict which transformers are about to fail, monitor power quality, and identify grid balancing problems.

Utilities are continually improving AMI so they can ensure seamless installation, integration, optimization, and migration, while future-proofing their networks by introducing new advanced technologies.

As they go along, the companies are applying the lessons they learn and developing solutions to fill any gaps as they are identified. This approach is especially important in cybersecurity. No longer solely about defense security, it is also about the ability to limit organizational liability when harm occurs from a cyber incident. The companies are adopting, or developing, smart solutions designed to mitigate these exposures in a rapid, highly cost-effective manner. These tools address cybercrime and privacy concerns from a perspective which sees risk in terms of technology, process, people, and supply chain. A new type of cybersecurity monitoring service has become a big element of this, but the convergence of traditional and industrial networks with IoT devices is becoming increasingly more problematic.

Utilities are aiming toward a distinctive synergy of highly secure, integrated, automated demand management technology based on open standards. They are also aiming for extensive consumer based demand-capacity market aggregation. This dual focus on technology and on the consumer market is enabling intelligent utilities to meet the challenges that lie ahead, providing the next generation of fuel supply mixes by including reliable and secure demand resources.

Houston, We Have a Problem

In February, a deep freeze devastated Texas and the Texas Tribune newspaper’s front page revealed that the 29 million residents were just minutes away from a power outage that could have lasted for weeks or even months. All electricity and heating production, from both fossil and wind sources, was not installed with extreme cold weather in mind. In particular, methane gas wells and pipelines froze shut, reducing supplies by almost half.

Utilities are facing signifcant challenges to meet a changing fuel supply mix.
Dave Paradise, CEO at Intel Industrial Solutions


As the energy companies begin the long repair process, the state’s leaders are also taking the problem seriously and looking ahead to a world filled with new climate change realities, such as an increase in the frequency of the polar vortex weather that caused the big chill. They’re asking questions about how to achieve grid reliability when winter electricity loads are primarily sourced using natural gas.

In regions where natural gas is used for both electricity generation and the heating of buildings, extreme cold weather events place enormous stress on distribution. These incidents, as they become more frequent and less predictable, challenge the ability to meet demand. The suppliers now realize that this is more challenging than they’d ever expected. To achieve greater system stability, it’s necessary to smooth grid demand by managing end-user demand through power cuts and mobile generators. Energy companies are evolving natural gas demand response (NG-DR) programs and deploying technology for dispatch during extreme cold weather events.

Smart Utilities - Jim-Boch - Utility Check

The Way to Save: Jim Boch, Chief Engineer at IPKeys, demonstrates the Integrated Automated Demand Management (IADM) platform, which gives utilities reliable and secure demand resources and potentially saves billions of dollars in plant replacement investments.

One emergent strategy that embraces IoT technologies is being used by smart utilities to implement controls that reduce load through automation. It provides a secure and inexpensive means of preserving precious grid resources while minimizing the impact on consumers by rotating the use of selected equipment. Sharing the available resources by turning off equipment for small periods of time means everyone can enjoy the essential resources of heat and hot water.

Preparation and planning that includes demand response provides a tangible method of mitigation for incidents like the recent Texas fiasco. Such events are not unique; spikes in electricity and gas consumption occur whenever extreme conditions impact the grid. Though the Texas grid operator had issued a warning that the incoming snowstorm might bring record electricity usage, it didn’t anticipate the freezing of gas wells and pipelines. Managing less critical loads, such as hot water boilers, washer dryers, or even stoves, would have lessened the negative impacts on the grid. IPKeys Power Partners a smart grid technology provider, has developed IoT devices to enable real-time, power-demand management capabilities. By implementing several actions – such as weatherbased, load-consumption forecasting, preheating, dual fuel switching, and smart resource cycling – utilities can increase resiliency and deliver reliable supply during adverse weather events.

Robert Nawy, CEO of IPKeys, says, “This IoT technology and demand management approach helps reduce the need to build more pipelines. It also provides a ‘virtual pipeline’ for those polar vortex days that we’re seeing more often.”

Heat of the Moment

On the road to becoming intelligent utilities, power companies are working hard to acquire and adopt IoT technologies. Companies like IPKeys are building products based on Open Automated Demand Response (OpenADR), which offers a highly secure, two-way information exchange protocol, based on open standards, for building certified and secure servers and devices for smart grids. Development of the standards is guided by the OpenADR Alliance, whose stated aim is to “standardize, automate, and simplify demand response and distributed energy resources.” The resulting framework enables utilities and aggregators to manage growing energy demand and decentralized energy production cost-effectively, while enabling customers to control their energy consumption. The Alliance is supported by IPKeys Power Partners, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), SoCal Edison, and the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Labs.

Smart Utilities -EISScube

Smart Box: The Energy Interop Server & System (EISS) BOX 3.0 by IPKeys allows real-time telemetric control of energy consumption, which can potentially lead to huge cost savings for utilities.

IPKeys’ demand management and response solution is based on its Energy Interop Server and System (EISS), which provides server-side communications and client-side interfaces to give utilities and their customers greater control over power consumption and economies. According to Nawy, “Additional benefits are realized by using this natural gas efficiency approach. We enable capital savings and cost deferral, and we help reduce and control peak demand in ways that take into account system capacity, weather, and demand forecasts. Ultimately, NG-DR creates an environmentally friendly way to create a more dynamic, flexible gas system that better serves the customer’s real-time needs.”

Jim Boch, chief engineer at IPKeys, adds, “NG-DR data also enables a new perspective for system modeling and load planning. Whenever natural gas distribution systems are strained and delivery is jeopardized, customers can use our technology platform. They are delivering a result the customers want: greater reliability.” The smart meter investments in the electric market are not so common in the natural gas field. The ability to measure the real-time demand reductions in gas would be an expensive retrofit. The IPKeys platform solves previous challenges of natural gas meter reading in real time by adding control of gas-consuming appliances, without the need to invest in an AMI network. Smart meters enable measurement and verification (M&V) to provide granular interval metering and ensure load reductions can be made on a noninvasive basis.

Smart Utilities: EISScube Chart

Back and Forth EISS Cubes are small two-way transmitters designed to monitor and manage the electrical activity of a variety of residential/ small-business electrical devices such as lighting controllers, distributed generation, HVAC units, plug-in electric vehicle chargers, and simple industrial control units.

Demand response programs have long been used to curtail summer electric loadings, but they have not yet been adopted by gas companies or their customers during the winter months. For this reason, NG-DR provides much-needed relief during demand spikes and moments of supply constraint, which are now being heightened by increasing environmental stress.

Natural gas pipeline suppliers are looking to their electric utility counterparts for best practices that show how to implement cutting-edge IoT technologies. These are critical to the fortification of their networks and grid-resiliency operations. NGDR moves utilities closer to their “intelligent” goals, making it possible for them to serve existing customers during extreme weather events without building new pipelines. It also makes it possible to use existing assets and couple them with advanced IoT technologies.



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