There is an ongoing data revolution happening within the utilities sector that is transforming nearly every aspect of how grids are laid out, monitored, and maintained. Much of this revolution is being driven by smart sensors, which are laced throughout power, water, sewage, and other utility lines to offer holistic and up-to-the-second information to keep these systems running smoothly and safely. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rate of these changes by highlighting the importance of being able to do jobs remotely and having reliable systems in the face of an emergency. Thanks to the ongoing and precise data that these sensors provide, the efficiency and reliability of these grids can be dramatically increased.
Reducing energy usage
Many smart sensors are accurate enough to monitor the electricity usage of households down to individual appliances. They can then organize that data into reports that are sent directly to the consumers. These energy audits give people a better understanding of how electricity is being used, and what they can do to reduce their personal energy consumption.
While home energy audits have been available for some time, until recently they could only be conducted in-person. This often resulted in a hassle for the home owners, who would have to be home at a certain time; and the auditors, who would often have to return to the same residence multiple times due to missed appointments. Now these audits can be conducted automatically, without the need for in-person visits. The reports can be delivered in the form of emails that are sent out monthly or when particularly high energy usage is detected.
Once the wasteful uses of energy are identified, users are encouraged to upgrade their home fixtures with newer and more efficient models for which they can shop online and receive rebates immediately. Before, they would have to visit a hardware store and go through the trouble of getting a mail-in rebate.
But not all of these changes towards greener utilities are happening on the consumer level. Data is also presenting new ways for the utility companies themselves to increase their efficiency. By monitoring overall energy usage throughout the grid (which has dramatically shifted towards residential areas while most people are working from home), utilities providers can create smarter systems that prioritize getting the utilities to where they are needed most.
Making grids safer and more reliable
In addition to becoming more efficient, merging with Big Data has made utility systems safer and more resilient. When there is a problem, utilities providers need to be able to immediately pinpoint it within the grid so that they can resolve it as quickly as possible. This is especially true during major emergencies, when a lack of water or power could endanger peoples’ lives.
This is accomplished through the use of thousands of smart sensors that are built into the grid. These sensors are designed to keep reporting data, even when other systems are failing. They do this by running on a 4G (or LTE) networks, which run separately from the normal power and internet grids. These 4G-powered smart sensors are so quick and precise that they can identify and deactivate a broken power line in the 1.4 seconds that it takes to reach the ground—protecting bystanders from a potentially lethal shock.
Preventing and detecting power outages
In February of last year, three consecutive winter storms swept across Texas and resulted in the worst energy infrastructure failure in the state’s history, leaving 4.5 million homes without paper and nearly 250 people dead. In response to scenarios like these, some companies and universities have begun investing in smarter infrastructure that can allow them to better predict and respond to future events.
One team in particular, led by Dr. Mladen Kezunovic of the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Smart Grid Center, received a $1 million NETL grant to to automate the monitoring of synchrophasor recordings. According to Dr. Kezunovic, the analysis will enable the prediction of major disturbances that may cause a blackout, and in turn allow electricity grid operators to maintain normal power system conditions and avoid outages.
Much like our supply chains, Big Data will be instrumental to utilities moving forward, as the constant stream of new information pushes these systems towards safety, efficiency, and reliability. Installing new water, electricity, and internet grids is extremely expensive, and so is upgrading these systems after they are already in place. That is why it is so important that the layouts of these installations are based on substantial and up-to-date information. Smart meters are paving the way to more intelligent infrastructure, and bringing the utilities sector into the information age.
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