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COVID-19 pushes organizations to adopt IoT in utilities

Organizations can use IoT in utilities to better navigate health emergences and natural disasters with asset tracking, automation and environmental monitoring applications.

The COVID-19 pandemic and recovery has demonstrated the need for companies to adapt to shifting utility use and to improve integration with technology, including IoT.

For the most part, utilities have stood up well, said Gilmore Cooke, a semi-retired electrical power engineer in Massachusetts. But COVID-19 has suddenly and significantly changed the way people use public water supplies, natural gas and electricity, potentially upsetting or stressing utility delivery systems.

At the same time, utilities face multiple constraints. They must maintain social distancing guidelines to protect the health of customers, employees and their families. They also face reduced demand and revenue as sporting events, concert venues and businesses scale back operations, according to an S&P Global Ratings report titled "North American Regulated Utilities Face Additional Risks Amid Coronavirus Outbreak." When combined with government prohibitions on shutting off services for delinquent customers, these factors have forced public utilities to reinvent their business models.

"COVID-19 may change where we ultimately work, heal and live, and electrical loads may shift as manufacturing plants move, but the electrical systems themselves shouldn't be permanently affected," Cooke said.

Health emergencies and natural disasters reveal vulnerabilities

Before the pandemic, utilities already faced an ongoing series of catastrophic environmental events, said Amol Sabnis, managing director and global lead, transmission and distribution at Accenture. In the U.S., for example, this included wildfires, hurricanes and tornadoes. Australia also dealt with wildfires while Europe was primarily concerned with flooding.

Accenture's Amol SabnisAmol Sabnis

Utilities facing these situations have had to focus on strengthening their ability to get services up and running, Sabnis said. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed both systemic vulnerabilities and challenges in the way utilities have traditionally conducted business. With each of these challenges, technology offers ways to increase resilience. IoT devices in utility operations technology is increasingly crucial, especially during a pandemic.

"COVID-19 has shone a bright light on utilities and has also exacerbated some of the challenges they face," Sabnis said. "Think of the damage [that occurred] with the tornados that recently hit the southern part of the U.S. If that had happened before the pandemic, utilities from other states would have come in as part of mutual aid."

Now, with shelter-in-place orders, utilities can't risk employees spreading infection by traveling to other states, he said. Even sending local people to assess the damage and restore electric power is more complex and difficult with social distancing and other proscriptions.

Understand how technology can address emergencies

When utilities face catastrophic events, such as a tornado, the question will be how they can adapt their technology to address it. Public utilities can use IoT to track vehicles and deploy equipment where it is most needed, Sabnis said.

"As we go into hurricane season in the U.S., that will be another major challenge utilities will need to address," he said.

Accenture's Grant DaviesGrant Davies

GPS-based geo-tracking provides location information and data to assess the severity of damage, such as the condition of plants and trees. Geo-tagging involves associating geographic information to reports, images, videos and data, which drives appropriate real-time response to an emergency. When applied to vehicles in daily operations, the data tracks vehicle location and provides a real-time picture of work in progress, said Grant Davies, director in risk, crisis and asset management practice at Accenture. During an event such as a hurricane, minute-by-minute responses could be fine-tuned to make deployment and redeployment faster.

One way to master such emergency challenges, whether the threat is from the climate or a pandemic, will be a greater reliance on drones and IoT devices to gather information and improve resource use, Sabnis said. For example, third-party drone-based inspection services have teamed up with utilities to regularly monitor assets, especially equipment prone to damage from wildfire and tree limb interference. IoT sensors can function in a complementary fashion for the wide deployment of infrared heat, soil moisture and smoke detectors or webcams. However, those options represent "a longer-term solution, because the investment required means you can't get it done overnight," Sabnis said.

Utilities could also adopt technologies such as Lidar, AI and machine learning to get faster and more accurate information, Davies said. For example, Lidar -- which is typically operated from an aircraft or helicopter -- can provide information on potential ignition and fuel load in places susceptible to wildfires. It can also be used to detect and measure thermal expansion, which can cause utility lines to sag and come in contact with vegetation. AI and machine learning can speed up analysis of input from Lidar and IoT sensors and also begin to predict potential trouble spots in advance of actual problems.

"I see the need for IoT and new technologies accelerating because of social distancing requirements and the need to not have humans in a position where they could be at risk," Davies said. "[IoT and other technologies] haven't been as well accepted in the U.S. as elsewhere, but I think that is going to change."

I see the need for IoT and new technologies accelerating because of social distancing requirements and the need to not have humans in a position where they could be at risk.
Grant DaviesDirector in risk, crisis and asset management practice at Accenture

Utilities will also be pushed to implement more vendor tracking and maintenance, Davies said. IoT sensors can track various pieces of equipment, such as transformers, to identify potential points of repair or failure before they fail. Similar devices have been employed successfully in other fields, such as HVAC, to implement predictive maintenance and could enhance the reliability of complex utility equipment.

Months into the pandemic, long-term planning begins

For those trying to keep power-generating stations and control centers operating, staying in compliance and ensuring the safety of workers was a very short-term view.

"Going back several weeks, we saw a very reactive situation; utilities were simply trying to figure out how to comply with stay-at-home orders and protecting their workforces," Davies said.

Since then, organizations have shifted to more proactive measures and to creating future-planning teams, Davies said. Those utilities teams focus on what to do when the economy reopens and how to reintegrate their full workforce in a new normal and work toward greater resilience.

"When they look at reintegration, they need to figure out which facilities are critical and which employees need to be there," Davies said. "All are essential, but some can work remotely."

New plans will likely require organizations to reassess their office designs. Some might reconsider the recent trend toward collaborative spaces and smaller cubicles because they can now promote the spread of infection. IoT will play a big role in making the reintegration process work, Davies said.

The first IoT technology many organizations will add is thermal scanners to monitor the temperature of anyone entering the building, he said. Typically, people check their temperature manually, but this could be automated through a network of thermal imaging cameras. Organizations are also researching the accuracy of air scanners to monitor circulating air for any indications of problems such as specific biologic indicators of potential disease transmission.

"Most organizations use HVAC systems to recycle the air internally as an energy-savings measure, so you will need sensors to address and control that potential concern," he said.

Utilities can use IoT sensors and machine learning or AI to assess data about the air and circulation patterns to warn of potential transmission routes if an infectious agent is suspected. Public utilities are also looking at technology to monitor the internal traffic flow of people in a building to limit the number of individuals in one area to decrease the risk of disease transmission.

Many other standard practices must be reexamined and could be improved with IoT technology. For example, when someone enters an elevator, there could be a better way to operate it other than pressing the same button everyone else has touched. Elevators are a potential safety risk because people getting into them violate social distancing and must touch buttons to request a floor. Organizations can use IoT sensors to detect and ensure adequate spacing in an elevator and provide touchless operations to floors, Davies said. Elevator designers could offer contactless selection panels that respond to a gesture, badge wave or voice command or work in conjunction with building management or security to recognize who someone is and what floor they most likely want.

Most offices share scanners and printers, which means they should be sanitized regularly. Organizations can use robots to automate the cleaning process, such as the LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot from disinfection services organization Xenex, which uses ultraviolet radiation to destroy viruses, Davies said. The robot patrols areas used regularly and sanitizes on a continuous basis.

Public utilities can also employ contact tracing to better monitor and control the spread of COVID-19. Individuals download apps to their phones that grant them the ability to track who they encounter. Organizations can then use the data to contact people who should quarantine if an individual they interacted with contracted COVID-19, Davies said. IoT sensors can supplement the contact tracing tools and show when and where individuals have been in close contact or operating in enclosed spaces -- such as utility vaults under the streets -- with those who test positive. IoT for utilities will have many operational effects, and its role in protecting workers will remain critical.

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