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4 ways IoT innovation can transform the utilities industry

IoT innovation is turning the utilities world on its head, augmenting smart meters with more advanced monitoring, alerting and data analytics capabilities than ever before. One of the most impactful innovations is a publisher-subscriber messaging protocol called MQTT. In the case of the utilities industry, electrical grids, gas pipelines and water suppliers can use MQTT to more quickly and accurately transmit data between their services and their customers and devices.

This article will provide four use cases that can transform the way utilities, especially electricity providers, can improve performance by cutting costs, improving billing and responding faster and more efficiently to service disruptions.

1. Smart metering

The industry has gone from having meters read regularly by an individual walking around town to reading the same meters by driving down the street with a remote device or cell phone. A real revolution is happening by equipping meters with a way to transmit their data over the power lines. Consider how powerful it will be to have power consumption not by the month, but by 15 minutes or any other interval. By using the MQTT protocol to transmit it, this data can be sent with guaranteed message delivery to provide accurate meter readings in real time.

For one thing, billing could be fairer and more accurate. Consider two households that consume the same power over the course of a month, but one household shifts much of its electricity use to overnight use, where the other does not. In the current system, the more energy-friendly house is subsidizing the other. With more granular energy reporting, utilities can charge more for peak energy and lower the charge for off-peak energy. In this case, the energy-savvy household would see a significant decrease in the monthly cost, while the household using more of the expensive energy will see a sharp increase. In addition to being able to lower the costs for many households and provide better data for peak energy analytics, the new model could encourage all households to reduce peak energy demands, or at least slow their growth.

2. Theft prevention

Industry experts estimate that $6 billion of electricity is stolen in the U.S. each year. By equipping transformers with the same technology as smart meters, transformers could send up their load data as well. By aggregating the load from all of the meters and comparing it to the transformer, a utility should easily be able to find places where there is theft or some other loss and respond quickly. Even with the theft occurring on the other side of the meter, the utility should be able to use analytics to determine where a spike in usage seems out of line from historic norms, including peak usage and outside influences, such as the need for increased cooling.

3. Fast outage response

Utilities no longer have to rely on customers reporting outages, as one feature of the MQTT technology is “last will” message alerting. If a device were to go offline unexpectedly, the MQTT broker would publish a predefined message down a predetermined path. This feature is often used to manage presence. In this case, it would manage the state of a household. If the power were to go out, the MQTT client in the smart meter would disconnect and the MQTT broker would notify the subscriber or utility team to let them know the power has been lost. At this point, the utility could dispatch a repair crew without waiting for a call. Imagine how pleasantly surprised a homeowner would be to come home and find a note that the power had gone out and the utility company has already repaired the damage — that is customer service at its finest.

4. Smarter outage response

Consider the above scenario, but this time all of the households on the same block, using the same transformer, all lose power together. Now, the problem could be the power line connecting the transformer to the power, the power line connecting the first house to the transformer or the transformer itself. If the smart transformer is still online and functioning correctly, it’s likely the problem is the line coming out of the transformer. But if the transformer is offline and messages beforehand have shown overload or overheating, then the loss of power is likely a blown transformer. Armed with this knowledge, the utility can dispatch a response crew that has the proper replacement transformer and equipment, eliminating duplicate efforts and wasted resources — for example, by sending one crew to bypass and another to replace the transformer.

Moreover, instead of waiting for the failure, the utility can be proactive. Analyzing the load on the transformer and its diagnostic information and taking into consideration the age of the transformer and its load rating, utility teams should be able to predict when a transformer is likely to go. If an external event, such as a heat wave, is approaching, the utility can proactively replace or prioritize any equipment likely to fail during the normal business operation — reducing inefficiencies by addressing potential issues ahead of a heat wave or storm, and reducing costs, such as having to pay overtime for teams to replace multiple devices on an urgent or emergency basis.

The above scenarios provide a brief glimpse of how MQTT and other IoT technologies can help transform a utility from an outdated, inefficient and unresponsive organization into a proactive, efficient, fair and customer-focused business. Of course, this is only the beginning. The smart grid opens the door for more sophisticated analytics and for even more sophisticated billing where customers can negotiate directly with energy providers for both standard and peak energy delivery. Here, energy providers can use smart grid analytics to target the appropriate customers for different pricing mechanisms. The more compelling cases are likely not even known today. The sky’s the limit on how this technology can be used moving forward.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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