Digitalization is boosting productivity and efficiency throughout the industrial world, especially in the utilities sector. With the introduction of reliable, high-speed connectivity, traditional methods of manual data collection are now nearly obsolete.
Alastair MacLeod, CEO and Founder of remote connectivity provider, Ground Control, examines how new methods of monitoring and data collection have resulted in vast increases in data volume, giving providers an unparalleled opportunity to streamline and improve business performance.
Data enables providers to provide consumers with a better and more consistent supply of public services, despite ever-increasing demand. However, there is still a dilemma here.
Connectivity has been identified as a common barrier to fully exploiting the Internet of Things (IoT). Inmarsat’s 2021 report indicates that 58% of electric utility providers are unable to implement IoT projects due to the availability of reliable connectivity in required areas.
Ultimately, the long journey of data has resulted in less reliance on manual collection and more on automation. Reliable connectivity has enabled machine-to-machine (M2M) technology to deliver big data, providing the means to understand consumption trends and effectively predict future utility usage.
Indeed, companies that fail to incorporate a robust data strategy into their business plan risk finding themselves at a major competitive disadvantage in the very near future, if they haven’t already. Our recent article, “The data journey in the digital transformation of utilities, and what it means,” examined this dilemma and how far utility companies have come in terms of collecting and analyzing data to streamline their operations.
The start of data collection in utilities
The utility industry has always made a significant effort to collect utility data, most often capturing data on poles and meter readings. But collecting data on the poles has its limits. Many hubs are in remote areas and some companies have such a high number (some over a million) that recovery ties up valuable resources, making it neither feasible nor financially viable, to gain sufficient insight into the network activity, nor get that insight fast enough, in order to make smarter business decisions.
Likewise, consumer meter reading has taken a similar journey from manual to smart, connecting wirelessly to report usage in real time – allowing users more informed control of utilities.
However, harnessing big data is only possible through innovations in connectivity. The development of computers, smart phones, the internet and the IoT have all provided a way to access more data than ever before.
Today, M2M technology and IoT are such an integral part of our daily lives that they often go unnoticed. For utilities, they represent a great opportunity to capitalize on a vast array of information that, when transformed into actionable insights, revolutionizes customer services, streamlines operations, and increases productivity and safety.
How Data is Driving Digital Transformation in the Utilities Industry
Electricity networks and gas distribution systems are essential infrastructures. Outages and supply disruptions result in huge financial burdens and penalties for the supplier, as well as severe (often prolonged) disruption for consumers. With growing pressure for renewables and customers looking to generate their own electricity, digital transformation could be the catalyst utilities need to drive consumer interest.
The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change has invested heavily in its smart grid vision and roadmap – building a smart grid across the UK. Smart meters and sensors along grid lines transmit usage data to providers, allowing them to match supply with demand. Likewise, smart devices can alter the hours of electricity use, avoiding peak times when pressure on the network is high, leading to lower costs and a reduced risk of outages.
It is this detailed insight into customer habits that enables and will allow utilities to achieve maximum efficiency and customer satisfaction. And in an age of costly network updates, usage trends could prove invaluable for planning and prioritizing engineering work, and the most efficient way to distribute utility supply.
By the end of 2021, there were 27.8 million smart and advanced meters in homes and small businesses across the UK. But reports show that 8% of the UK landmass remains uncovered by mobile networks – so connectivity considerations are key.
Additionally, the real-time flow of electricity through the grid is monitored, logged, and time-stamped using GPS by Phasor Measurement Units (PMUs). Combined with data from smart meters, this timely information allows electricity providers to identify needed maintenance before it results in a full-scale power outage. When failures occur, knowing the exact location and nature of the problem without having to wait for technicians to manually investigate increases worker safety and dramatically reduces recovery time.
Extreme weather conditions also strongly contribute to network vulnerability. For example, when a lightning strike caused blackouts in 2019 leaving more than a million UK customers without power with two power stations disconnected from the grid, the two energy companies in question were fined over £10.5 million. As extreme weather events become more frequent, the smart grid can identify areas most at risk, enabling efficient planning to minimize disruption.
Humans are fallible
The full potential of data can only be realized once it has been processed and applied to decision making. But humans are fallible and our brains are not equipped to process the volumes of data transmitted through the smart grid.
The devices already communicate with each other; the next step is to learn how to make decisions based on the data they collect. Automation involves minimal human intervention and is therefore less fallible, more accurate and much faster than human-led processes. Possible applications include automatically dispatching repair crews to outages, automatically scaling supply during demand swings, and generating utility bills based on smart meter data from individual customers.
Going back to Inmarsat’s 2021 report, as 58% of providers lack the connectivity to implement IoT projects, the challenge is clear – that without a connectivity ecosystem, to support all of this technology evolving, we are still in the dark when it comes to knowledge of data. After all, data gaps and delays can create a wildly inaccurate picture.
And that’s where the satellite comes in. It can be used as a primary connectivity option or as a failover in the event of a terrestrial network outage, creating a more resilient and scalable network.
Connectivity is becoming more reliable than ever and a myriad of options are available to create a bespoke network to support big data collection and M2M interactions across utility networks. But despite the availability, the optimal connectivity solutions are not always implemented.
There is still some skepticism about the full value of data; and analyzing it has become, to some extent, a box-ticking exercise. Thus, without doubt, continuous training is necessary in the sector to optimize connectivity and guarantee the full value of IoT and digitization projects. With the vast and disparate nature of utilities and its infrastructure, connectivity will be key to unlocking the power of big data in this sector.