Technology Revamp: New and emerging solutions to improve utility operations

New and emerging technologies su­ch as internet of things (IoT), digital substations, blockchain and re­mote monitoring solutions are revam­ping the way utilities operate and maintain their assets. Power utilities are inc­reasingly deploying sensors and intelligent electronic devices that gather data, which can be integrated and analysed to derive meaningful insights. Further­mo­re, artificial intelligence (AI), machine le­ar­ning (ML), big data analytics and pre­dictive maintenance tools are emerging as key trends in the technology space. Overall, these technologies are being ad­opted across the generation, transmission and distribution segments for auto­mation, remote operations, asset management, predictive maintenance and fa­ult assessment, among others.

IoT devices

IoT refers to a system of interconnected devices that transmit data. IoT devices en­able seamless data interaction by using sensors and actuators to gather data in real time and store it in the cl­o­ud. The system can detect flaws immediately and take suitable action by using IoT. Going out and physically inspecting the distribution and transmission network and power plant system takes a lot of human effort and time. Using IoT systems and devices minimises this human intervention. The location of the equipment in need of repair may be determined by utilising online monitoring. Further, insights gained from IoT device data may be applied in a variety of ways to increase productivity, facilitate infor­med decision-making, undertake preve­n­tive and fault maintenance, and boost asset performance. For instance, in an IoT-connected power plant, a rise in boi­ler temperature would trigger an al­arm across the entire unit and solutions wo­uld be recommended to mitigate the issue in real time with limited delay.

Asset performance management is one of the most prevalent use cases of IoT. IoT enables condition-based maintena­nce, predictive maintenance and risk-ba­sed maintenance. A transition from reactive maintenance to IoT-enabled proactive maintenance can improve the reliability and availability of assets; reduce main­tenan­ce cost; reduce or eliminate un­pla­n­­ned downtime, thereby reducing prod­uctivity loss; reduce the need to keep an inventory of spare parts for emergency re­pairs; and improve the productivity and safety of repair crews.

IoT solutions have immense potential in operational optimisation of po­wer plant assets. With the increasing share of variable generation in the overall energy mix, the balancing act of managing ma­ny generators becomes difficult and the­re is a need for active congestion management of the transmission and di­stri­bution network. IoT can play an important role in this regard through de­ploy­ment of digital power plants and digital substations.

Smart metering is another application of IoT systems, which enables bidirectional energy flows. The abilities of smart me­ters include providing adaptive po­wer pricing, and enabling real-time monitoring and remote control of systems. The­se features enhance energy efficiency, im­prove reliability of the grid, increase its interoperability with other systems, reduce outages by improving communications with it and provide net metering capabilities. Furthermore, with smart me­ters, data on power outages, power qua­lity, energy usage, billing pattern, me­t­er tampering events, etc., can be av­ailed in real time. Meanwhile, discoms can aggregate smart meter data to a central repository so that the data can be analysed for better insight such as distribution operation analytics and distribution asset analytics. Further, consumer data can be used for load research analytics and demand response analytics. Meanwhile, revenue data can be used for energy theft analytics and revenue modelling analytics. Smart meters are an im­portant component of a smart grid.

An emerging IoT application includes home-based smart energy management solution with integrated management of generation, storage and consumption. Further, with increased uptake of electric vehicles, IoT can provide electric fl­eet systems with metrics such as char­ge status, charging session information and charge/discharge cycles.

Communication technologies

Wireless systems connect sensor devices to IoT gateways and perform end-to-end data communication between these IoT elements. Wireless communication systems play a major role in enabling IoT, and hence, a lot of considerations need to be accounted for before finalising the communication technology. Wireless systems are developed based on different wireless standards and the use of one depends on the requirements of the application, be it communication range, bandwidth or power consumption. For example, renewable sources of energy, including wind and solar power plants, are mostly located in very remote areas. Employing IoT systems at these sites requires the selection of a suitable communication technology that can guarantee a continuous connection and support real-time data transfer in an energy-efficient manner.

Short distance power communication sy­stems include the use of Wi-Fi for en­ergy metering and building energy management systems. However, due to the high power requirements of Wi-Fi, this technology is not the most ideal solution for the energy sector. Other communication technologies include low-power wide area network (LP-WAN) technologies. LP-WAN solutions such as long-range WAN, Sigfox and narrowband IoT are better suited for the energy sector, given that they can reliably send small pa­ckets of data continuously over long distances. These emerging LP-WAN so­lutions enable the establishment of reliable, low-cost, low-power, long-ran­ge, last-mile technologies for smart en­ergy management.

Emerging technologies

AI/ML: Other digital technologies integrated by utilities in their system architecture include AI for granular visibility at the appliance level and ML for distilling actionable patterns from data aggregation. For instance, studying the feasibility of integrating renewable energy sources into the transmission network without destabilising grid frequency re­quires extensive high fidelity simulations under various loads, generation pr­­o­­files and weather conditions. For this, AI/ML-based forecasts of grid de­ma­nd will increasingly acquire more importance, given the rising penetration of variable renewable energy systems in the electricity mix. Further, AI can help detect faults, reduce transmission losses, enhance energy efficiency and accelerate the integration of clean energy so­urces in power grids. AI can also aid po­wer distribution strategy, supervision and monitoring.

The scope of data analytics and decision-making based on AI/ML, IoT, etc., is en­hanced by using digital twins. In re­ce­nt years, several plants have been incorporating digital twins in their plant systems to optimise operations, and estima­te and diagnose potential issues in ad­va­nce. Digital twins replicate the be­haviour of physical systems and help in optimising plant performance by detecting physical issues in real time and predicting outcomes more accurately.

Robotics and drones: The increasing solar installations face the issue of high dust concentration, necessitating operators to employ maintenance workers to clean photovoltaic panels periodically, so as to maximise performance. In recent years, operators have started deploying robotic cleaners that are en­ha­nced with ML algorithms and AI techni­q­ues such as artificial neural networks and genetic algorithms. The ro­bots will soon be more commonly dep­loy­ed across several areas of the power sector. In the coming years, generation companies with operations in harsh and inaccessible re­gions will prefer to deploy robots for performing maintenance tasks.

Nowadays, the adoption of drones is ga­ining traction. Drones are a cost-effecti­ve, efficient and safe solution for the in­s­p­ection of power systems. They also im­­prove safety, increase reliability and re­­­duce downtime. Drones can also be us­­­ed by transmission utilities to assess potential site locations, design site layouts, generate 3D visualisations and ma­ke estimates for RoW.

Blockchain: Blockchain technology, with its emphasis on verifiable transparency, will facilitate the adoption of green energy trading, renewable energy certificates, carbon certificates, etc. The introduction of blockchain technology will help discoms or bulk buyers directly verify the source of the energy they purchase. Ad­ditionally, such verification will help convert energy resources into digital assets, so that they can be traded on the block­chain. For instance, in March 2021, Tata Power Delhi Distribu­tion Limited and Power Ledger, in association with the India Smart Grid Forum, rolled out the first peer-to-peer solar energy trading pilot project in Delhi, wherein prosumers can sell excess energy to other residential and commercial consumers in a dynamic pricing environment.

Battery energy storage system: To manage the seasonality of renewable energy, a key technology that will be used is the energy storage system (ESS). An ESS us­es devices (a battery or accumulator) th­at stores energy in forms such as chemical, electrical potential, electricity and elevated temperature, and then converts it from these forms. Robust energy storage systems can help mitigate the intermittency of power and increase the utilisation of transmission assets. An ESS is key to energy transition as it can add flexibility and resource availability to an otherwise uncertain system. It can also defer capex for transmission companies. Further, renewable energy management centres for forecasting and scheduling can make the grid more reliable and manage demand-side integration.

Issues and the way ahead

Lack of financing is a major bottleneck that hinders the uptake of IT-OT technologies. Most of these systems require substantial investments across several components in a coherent and composite manner in order to yield synergistic benefits. Additionally, the payback period for these technologies ranges from 8 to 10 years, thereby making many financial institutions sceptical about extending funding for them.

IoT devices must be desig­ned robustly to function in a variety of settings. For ins­tance, power grids and networks often operate under harsh conditions such as high or low temperatures, high voltages, exposure to electromagne­tic waves and exposure to water. The­re­fore, IoT devi­c­es must meet re­quirements such as reliability or compatibility under such conditions. Further, a variety of communi­ca­tion technologies based on Wi-Fi, bluetooth, RF net, cellular communications, etc., are available. However, th­ere are issues, as most of these technologies do not completely satisfy the conditions of affordability, reliability, speed and interoperability.

With a shift towards distributed generation, increased trading and bidirectional energy flows, finding a solution to overcome these challenges is necessary. Go­ing forward, integrating IT systems with OT systems will not only help utilities in increasing their business efficiency but also enhance their profitability.