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The Internet of Things Is a Game-Changer for the Energy Industry

Megan Nichols's picture
Freelance Technical Writer, Self-Employed

Megan Ray Nichols is the editor of Schooled By Science, a blog dedicated to breaking down current complex scientific discussions into the vernacular. She loves writing about the latest...

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  • Jul 19, 2016


The Internet of Things is real, Al Gore didn’t have anything to do with it and it means much bigger wins than activity tracking for your dog.

You see, if 2015 was the year of the IoT, 2016 is the year of the IoT’s hard-working significant other, the Industrial Internet of Things. This power-couple is poised to bring about changes so significant in the ways we live and work, it’s being hailed as the fourth industrial revolution.

A Bigger Big Data

At the core of our business infrastructure is the power grid, and our current solution has become more than a little long-in-the-tooth. It suffers from efficiency problems, leaves us vulnerable to a potential cyberattack and is overtaxed even when things are working properly. But the IIoT aims to change all that.

Managing the power grid requires knowledge of how and where power flows, and we gather that knowledge in the form of data. The problem is, current data collection systems are extremely costly. Lo-fi IIoT technology could replace the existing data collection technology and deliver a savings of up to 1000%.

Once data collection becomes cheaper, the creation of ubiquitous, self-regulating power grids, able to siphon just the right amounts of power to customers, becomes a possibility. With the increase in sensor availability and sensitivity, you may never need to turn a light on or off again. Just exit the room and let the grid take care of it.

The Smart Grid

Not surprisingly, a self-managing super-efficient power delivery grid represents the holy grail (at least for now) of IIoT realization. With global energy demand set to double by the year 2030, the need to replace our existing systems (which date back to the early ‘70s) with more efficient, low-carbon solutions is now.

But what does next-generation power distribution actually look like? The concept of the “smart grid” replaces aged infrastructure components with network-aware pieces from the meter in your home (which might already be “smart”) to the power production facility itself.

Current power distribution systems have to rely on large-scale adjustments to provide more electrical energy when demand increases, which is inefficient. The Smart grid is able to detect minute changes in demand, identify where power isn’t being used and redirect it, or increase production ever so slightly to compensate.

A fully realized smart grid could allow consumers with sustainable energy technology such as solar panels or windmills to wire into the grid and could even allow them to help a neighbor in times of need. Not using the power? Let’s hope the smart grid isn’t so smart they take away the ability to run the meter backwards.

Heavy Clouds

Cloud computing has already shown itself to be one of the driving forces behind the fourth industrial revolution, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what this new paradigm for networked SAAS technologies can deliver.

Yes, Amazon, Google and Microsoft offer intuitive pre-fab cloud solutions that anyone can take advantage of, but the IIoT will ring in the era of proprietary cloud networks dedicated to a single service or product. Take European IoT pioneer Sigfox, for example. Their lo-fi IoT sensor technology can operate using almost no battery power by sending extremely compact amounts of data over a dedicated cloud network.

Further advances in this space could include next generation file-sharing services and networks dedicated to wearable devices, each one capable of collecting actionable data based on user interaction. Thanks to the rapid advances cloud technology has delivered for software-as-a-service (SAAS) providers, advanced customer resource management and project management solutions will be available even for start-ups.

Interestingly, the vast majority of revenue currently generated by cloud services has come out of developing nations who were slow to catch on when these technologies first became available. Eventually the spike will taper off as nations catch up, but it’s good to see new technology fostering growth for these young countries.

Bit Stew

Teaming up with the revamped sensor technology, a new host of data collection technologies, such as Blue Pillar’s Aurora system, combined with next-generation industrial computers, will give businesses the ability to manage changes for vast networks and visualize data collected from those networks to identify choke points and stressors to the system.

In one example of what the future may look like, General Electric and Cisco are paving the way with a system called “Bit Stew”. While it’s been in place for over a decade, the latest iterations of Bit Stew allow for machine learning and something called Software-Defined Operations (SDOs).

The concept behind an SDO is similar to when your pop-up blocker automatically closes a window you’ve already created a rule for, except what we have here will allow utilities to more quickly and efficiently service customers without the need for prolonged manual processes.

The Future Is Now

Israel has already implemented such a system in their water grid, where sensors can identify even tiny leaks in the system and trigger a workflow to send technicians to the site with the proper parts to repair the damage.

These advances could not have come at a more fitting time. With rolling blackouts depriving California residents of power during summer heat waves and the natural gas infrastructure not far behind, the motivation is real for utilities leaders to work together and deliver solutions, soon.

It is an exciting time for the energy industry, and if all goes as planned we could be looking back twenty years from now, wondering how we ever got by on educated guesses.

Photo Credit: Matthias Ripp via Flickr


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