The smartphone-connected generation with its use of apps and social media is a clear pointer to how the 21st-century utility-customer relationship needs to be built, and increasingly it is being extended to the operations of the utility itself.
Hand in hand with the emergence of intelligence at the grid edge has come the first apps for field devices. Indeed, the concept itself, which has been pioneered by Itron on its OpenWay Riva platform, is based on an app model.
Put an intelligent capability into an grid edge device such as a meter or sensor and it can run as a distributed device, reducing the data burden at the utility central data centre and accelerating the decision-making capability of distributed generation systems.
Thus, for example at the most basic level, a sensor need only send an alert if it detects a condition outside the normal operating parameters – and it can do so close to real time without the delays that would be incurred by data transfer and analysis at the utility.
Or in a real world example, the US city of Pittsburgh has piloted a traffic light system that adapts to changing traffic conditions, demonstrating improvement in traffic flow and reduced vehicle emissions.
Each signal makes its own red/green timing decisions and coordinates those with its downstream neighbours. (In the next phase the system is being introduced to connected vehicles and a pilot is underway to prioritise buses, while in the future it could be further extended to autonomous vehicles.)
Apps on grid edge devices - store
With the number of apps growing, the next step is an grid edge device app store, which Itron has introduced with Bsquare, using the latter’s DataV IoT software stack to enable easy app download and management.
Itron’s initial focus with Riva was on use cases connected with the company’s core competencies such as theft detection, outage detection, volt/var optimisation and direct load control.
Other apps, including for leak detection and sensing for water and methane detection for gas, have followed. The technology has also been opened up to third party developers.
“Itron’s OpenWay Riva solution puts intelligence into devices across a utility’s service territory and provides dynamic and powerful new methods of improving grid reliability, reducing operating costs and enhancing revenue opportunities,” says Mark de Vere White, president of Itron’s Electricity business line.
More than 10 utilities are currently installing OpenWay Riva, of which the latest are Public Service Company of New Mexico and Avangrid in New York.
The latter will be a particularly interesting case to follow, as the utilities in that state are transforming into distributed system platform providers under the Reforming the Energy Vision initiative.
Avangrid’s deployment will form the foundation for an Energy Smart Community in Ithaca, which will support the development of prosumers.
OpenWay Riva was developed initially for utilities but it was obvious that its application would be wider and it is also aimed to encompass smart cities and the broader Internet of Things, including sectors as diverse as manufacturing and agriculture.
Over time hundreds of apps are expected to become available, according to de Vere White.
Utilities and 'app fatigue'
While the concept of apps is relatively new in the utility sector, Gartner in its latest mobile apps survey has started talking about “app fatigue” and a “post apps era” dominated by integrated apps, most likely on messaging platforms, and digital assistants.
It’s all about getting “fast information in a consolidated manner,” according to Gartner research director Jessica Ekholm. “Users are increasingly looking for apps that can offer a multitude of services without having to leave the app itself.”
From a customer engagement perspective, these are trends of which the utility needs to be aware and they will likely quickly spill over to utility app development, especially if they can enhance utility operations.
And one can be sure that if these are the tools that are being used in leisure activities – in the survey almost three-quarters said they used a virtual personal assistant at least once a week, for example – they are also ones that especially the next generation of workers will want in their professional environment.