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IoT's Role in The Energy Industry

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Nathan  Sykes's picture
Founder Finding an Outlet

I'm a writer first and a techie second, though sometimes those can change. I'm Pittsburgh, PA and interested in the ways in which technology is impacting the ways we live and do business.

  • Member since 2018
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  • May 13, 2019

The Internet of Things represents the logical culmination of many years' worth of technological advancement. It provides the means to digitize entire industries and vast infrastructural networks, to learn from real-time data insights and to, in many cases, automate decision-making processes that used to rely on human intervention.

The coming years will be critical for the development of forward-thinking energy delivery systems. As the world comes to terms with climate change and looks for ways to distribute resources more efficiently and consume more conscientiously, the IoT provides a set of tools that will become increasingly indispensable.

Smarter Electric Grids

Realizing a clean energy future means we have to electrify everything. Researchers argue that all the nations of the earth could pivot to renewables by 2050 if we collectively transition to electric transportation, residential and commercial power, water treatment, manufacturing, and everything we depend on for civilized living. Of course, doing so is even more complicated than it first sounds. But the IoT points the way forward. Thanks to smart electric grids, we'll have a clearer picture of, and more useful insights into, our collective energy use than ever — and the means to deliver power where it's needed more efficiently than ever.

"Smart grids" aren't exactly a new concept. In 2009, KCP&L (Kansas City Power & Light) rolled out a smart grid pilot program to demonstrate what's possible when utility companies gather more granular data from the entire breadth of their service area. Their project ended up cutting power outages from 403 minutes per year to 260. The technologies included new sensors and monitoring apparatuses, more efficient communication tools, solar panels, battery backups and automation for meter reading.

Conquering avoidable power outages with IoT deployments isn't just good for utility companies — it's good for the economy, too. In 2016, on average, Americans went without power for four hours each at a total cost of $41.3 billion to the U.S. economy. Livelihoods and GDPs require access to technology services, including power. And gathering data and automating event responses using the IoT helps keep our most vital services humming along.

​​​​​​​Automated Cost-Cutting Measures

The rollout of digital electricity delivery infrastructure, with data-gathering mechanisms at regular intervals, delivers the means to better understand power consumption over a wide area, as well as techniques for automating our response to peaks and troughs in demand.

One technique that will soon lead to automated cost-cutting measures for energy grid customers is known as "demand response" (DR) programs. When industrial sites, such as factories, bring themselves into the fold with smart meters, they can also take advantage of smart switches. Smart switches are tools which can make intelligent, autonomous decisions about ratcheting down a location's power draw from the grid in favor of onsite power generation and storage, thereby making more grid-drawn power available for others during times of peak demand. This wasn't possible before the advent of connected, intelligent power grid technology.

Other cost-cutting measures made possible by the IoT include automatic maintenance tickets generated by connected energy grids: in other words, utility companies will be able to gather information about outages caused by natural and unnatural disasters, get crews onsite faster and prioritize repair efforts where they're most needed in order to get customers powered up again as efficiently as possible.

​​​​​​​Real-Time, Proactive Monitoring for Oil and Gas

As we move toward an electrified future, nations need a way to ensure their "transition" fuels can get from their origin to their destination safely. That means bringing the Internet of Things and edge computing into the oil and natural gas industries to monitor pipelines and other transportation infrastructure. Energy companies that invest in IoT solutions can enjoy the following advantages:

  • Sensors installed at regular intervals along delivery infrastructure can deliver alerts when unusual behavior or leaks are detected.
  • At remote sites, where putting employees on the ground represents a major time and labor expense, the IoT can remove physical barriers to gathering intelligence and operational data and prioritizing personnel assignments.
  • Pipeline "pigging" — inserting a bullet-shaped device into pipelines to keep them clean and flowing freely — is a familiar maintenance tool for pipeline workers. But "intelligent" or "smart" pigs equipped with sensors do more than keep fuel flowing: they can also deliver detailed data on the condition and performance of the pipes.

Pipelines are long, complex, and prone to leaking. Energy companies that turn to data solutions and invest in smarter technologies can ensure their business continues uninterrupted by ecological and reputational harm.

​​​​​​​Caveats and Pitfalls

As with any application involving the use of the IoT, security in the energy sector is a top-of-mind concern.

One years-old but still instructive example of the IoT's potential pitfalls involves Target's data breach in 2013. It involved hackers targeting unprotected HVAC systems equipped for remote operation, in order to make off with customer data. More recent examples like the Mirai Botnet reveal what can happen when malign actors conspire to turn legions of internet-connected devices against their owners. Given what we know about the hit to the national GDP when power can't be delivered, the energy sector is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to disruption by DDoS attacks than most others.

Apart from devices not being designed with robust security in mind, other challenges include ecosystem fragmentation and interoperability. For something as complex as an energy grid to work as intended, residential and commercial cloud tools and IoT devices must be able to interface with each other — and the same is true for energy companies which must work in concert with one another.

With these things in mind, the EU's Cyber Security Act provides a blueprint for member nations — and for other territories to emulate — which describes a common set of standards for cybersecurity and interoperability. The Act explicitly describes expectations for smart meters, including rules for disclosure about which types of data are collected, and for what purpose, and how energy companies must protect themselves against data loss and illegal outside access. To navigate the complex web of potential and risk in energy sector IoT deployments, it's clear a strong partnership between the public and private sectors is essential.

Even with these clear warnings, it's obvious the IoT has the ability to transform each piece of our shared energy infrastructure for the better.

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