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IoT Presents Potential and Challenges in Adding Reliability to the Grid

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In 2018, US electric customers suffered an average of 5.8 hours of service interruptions (losing power for five minutes or more) during the year, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). The numbers are the highest since the agency started tracking this area in 2013 and almost three times more than the typical two hours of annual downtime. Many factors, such as snowstorms, hurricanes, floods, or heatwaves, create the outages. So, how might utility executives leverage Internet of Things (IoT) technology to lower the numbers?

Weather plays a major role in energy outages and creates variations seen from state to state. In 2018, the annual power interruption durations ranged from just 1.5 hours in South Dakota to nearly 30 hours in North Carolina. In 2018, North Carolina was hit by both Hurricane Florence and Hurricane Michael, resulting in lengthy outages.

A Need for Common Interfaces

Outages linger because utilities have had limited visibility to their end points, but they have been gaining more with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). These devices include intelligent sensors that collect performance data and relay it to central locations for analysis.

But one problem is this area is new and lacks a common language. Each device has its own way of identifying, securing, and transmitting performance data. This approach creates a Tower of Babel where different devices cannot talk to one another.

More Progress is Needed

Progress has been made in some areas. The emergence of smart home devices, like smart thermostats and smart lighting, provides utilities with more insight into the status and use of those devices.  

But more work is needed. Many home devices, especially legacy devices, lack intelligent interfaces.

Also, the growing use of solar and wind energy is exacerbating the interoperability issue. The management infrastructure for these options is immature. Grid operators simply do not have a very good sense of how many megawatts of distributed solar have been installed or how to route excess energy to areas in need.  

Because standards are lacking, energy professionals spend lots of time simply connecting IoT devices to the grid. Only after that work is done can they develop best practices that use their new features to improve uptime when problems arise.

Availability has been a long standing grid issue that grew worse in 2018. IoT offers energy producers the potential to improve uptime, but a lot of work is needed to transform that potential into reality.

Paul Korzeniowski's picture

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