The future is here today
You can read it from multiple reports and articles, IoT will be present in almost everywhere we work, we travel, we eat or live. Consulting companies such as McKinsey, Gartner, Comarch, Navigant Research, Capgemini; communication companies like Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei or industrial giants such as Siemens, ABB, Schneider Electric share multiple information how IoT will change our world today and in a near future. IoT for energy sector is may be not that spread out for today, but there are significant ideas where and how IoT will create value add for energy market as well.
Old fashioned data flow
Those who had created communication solutions for transmission system operators (TSO’s), distribution system operators (DSO’s) like myself, knows that collecting data from the field is necessary to remote monitor, managing and operating an energy system. Collecting data from a transformer or distribution station or even from a remote control center station requires a certain level of engineering work to design the communication system, understand the nature of power line carrier (PLC) systems which are heavily used in high and medium voltage structures, knowing the distance of communication for legacy protocols (EIA232/485 etc.) or IP networks and of cause an important amount of hard wired systems will be necessary. You need to deal with the limits of the station and in some cases even need to re-engineering that layout since the distances, electrical conditions etc. not fit to what you designed in the first place. I do recall, to move cabin multiple times in a station, due to distance limits, more important cabinet replacements, even insufficient space allocation in the station. Solution to place the communication equipment in field was not always an easy duty.
Once solved the interior you’re getting a new hurdle on the wide area side this time. In some countries the use of cellular networks is used like a swiss knife and have been applied to each and every solution. Unfortunately, in rural areas the coverage and signal strength of such systems isn’t always align with a communication solution for energy environment. Since 4G isn’t that deeply deployed in many countries, the good old (!) systems such as 2G or 3G are used as main structure. Hence some of the frequencies of such have been used for 4G allocations as well and limitations exists here as well. Finding a price effective right and truthful communication device (modem or routers etc.) isn’t also easy to deal with. The good old world of electrical engineering gets into a complex and confusing style of work requesting telecommunication skills and out of the box thinking.
Facing such issues, experts with both electrical energy and communication skills and knowledge will be helping those in needs. What is the best and affordable solution to select, which solution can deliver the necessary amount of data or even can be scalable for future needs of the utilities? At those days, I must admit in some cases it was an “Piece of Art” to find the best available in field.
New and emerging environments are present for us today….we require more and new signals, need free space and capacity on the controllers (programmable logical controller) or RTU (remote terminal unit), we adding new I/O’s (input/outputs) and so on…the legacy systems were heaven for electrical engineers in the past.
A “May-December Marriage” for electrical energy?
IoT isn’t really putting every data on the internet as the phrase tells, it uses existing communication infrastructures from carriers or operators and digitizing our old habits. Yes, indeed it is a digital transformation wand for us. Less adaptation and faster time to deploy the data is the main advantage against legacy systems who took hours and days to implement before getting a single bit of data out the location. To give the energy company a fast and reliable communication solution you will use whatever you can find in the field (wired or wireless, old RF techs or future oriented cellular structure) and enabled by the carriers as well. Using IP technologies with emerging technological trends will be one of the most preferred solution today and tomorrow.
One of the value-add of IoT technology will be the immense reduction of cabling efforts inside the station and the cabinets. The required signals will be acquired by small sized sensors or actuators, aggregated by a gateway or even data concentrator and send towards the remote-control center through wide are communication as we used to. Replacing the big and heavy communication cabinets with small size aggregation devices, smaller sized sensor to replace RTU or PLC’s with hard wire requests giving you an easier implementation opportunity and faster roll out of the system.
LPWA (low power wide area) solutions will be the best option for creating an alternative solution, optimize the structure and still supporting electrical energy-oriented communication stands such as mature IEC60870-5-10x or new breed IEC61850. A win-win for both energy system operators and communication system providers will be enabled. LPWA is actually the common name of technologies we all heard about since the last few years such as NB-IoT, LTE-M, LoRaWAN, Sigfox, Ingenu (former RPMA), Weightless, BLE, WiFi and so on.
Energy Station Offerings by IoT
At this point I like to focus on some IoT use cases covering transformer, distribution stations and metering solutions.
Value adds for Transformer and/or Distribution Stations
- Reduction or even replacement of all unnecessary wires
- Deployment of communication systems within few hours (from days and weeks)
- Scalable and easy enhancement of signals within the station (whenever and wherever you need capacity)
- Reduce spaces due to less used cabinets or similar housings
- Easy adaptation of the hybrid communication system
- Sensors working in unlicensed frequency bands (ISM) will reduce the usage of SIM cards (no need of swap all devices)
- All signals in a station can be delivered via ONE SYSTEM and ROUTER towards the control center or datacenter, wherever available, even can send to multiple control centers as well (if necessary)
- Thanks to alternative device usage, avoidance of any operator or vendor lock-in
Value adds for metering
- Compared to traditional modems (2/3/4G), less expensive IoT modules for communication
- Multiple communication environment delivery at the same time
- Easy reducing the amount of communication devices where mass quantity of meters is located
- Less or no more adaptation work for new communication devices, an almost real plug and play installation
Hybrid communication as the real magic wand
To reduce the bad image of cellular network for rural application and the utilities, telecom operators should look into hybrid solutions. Where in urban areas cellular will be more efficient, rural areas need a more focus structure to cover their needs.
Create a solution consisted of licensed and unlicensed networks or hybrid structures isn’t new to the telecom world. Years ago, where it was expensive to lay fibers in water, sea, over mountains or other hard terrains, radio relay solutions were used to overcome such issue of natural limitations. Delivery of complementary or even permanent structure, with radio solutions were seen in the early 90’s.
Today’s requests aren’t so different from those times. Hard wired and licensed wireless can be mixed by including also unlicensed systems. Some sectors discussing the mixture of NB-IoT with LoRaWAN to cover the best available areas, where one solution can do all the work. Licensed and unlicensed solution can create a good cost-effective infrastructure for the purpose necessary for the end users.
Go for out of the box
IoT is a new tool, enable us to do traditional things in a better and more efficient way. To enable such a tool, we need to think differently, doing traditionally things in different manners, in other words have to “think out of the box”.
Be open minded and looking for opportunities for deployment of new and disruptive solutions in all environments not only for energy, but for all possible applications in the market.
Try to image first before you deny the value of IoT…