The Grid Edge – New Utility Opportunities

Distributed intelligence is opening up new applications and revenue opportunities for utilities.
Published: Thu 01 Oct 2015

The grid edge – that intersect with a customer touchpoint such as a home PV system, storage system or electric vehicle charging point, or with for example a piece of lower voltage (LV) distribution equipment, is where many of the energy sector disruptions are taking place today.

New smarter technologies are being deployed in increasing numbers as utilities build out their smart grids and consumers convert to prosumers. But this revolution is barely under way and a further sea change is ahead.

“Over the past couple of years or so we have seen utilities start to use smart meter data in ways that go beyond customer billing such as improving distribution system operations and reliability,” Tim Wolf, Itron’s director of marketing for smart grid solutions, told Engerati in an exclusive interview.

“But by and large the analytics capabilities and business processes have been concentrated in the back office, where they are constrained. Now new technologies are enabling us to take these use cases out to the grid and to enable capabilities that weren’t possible previously.”

At the grid edge

Think smartphone capability in a grid device, or alternatively a smart meter as a computing device running a metering app, to get a sense of these new capabilities that are embodied in terms such as ‘distributed intelligence’.

“It is all about moving the intelligence out of the utility back office to where it is needed in the grid, whether at the edge or mid-tier,” says Mr Wolf. “By placing the computing capability there, one is able to run apps processing data in real-time to glean insights and actionable intelligence. For example, in the case of an outage with local analysis the location could be determined and isolated without the utility having to sort through a tsunami of outage notifications which then have to be analyzed.”

“To find that needle, the haystack has to be created first, and that is the current utility analytics paradigm,” he says. “With a distributed intelligence platform, small piles of hay are created at the edge, which can be analyzed more quickly and more efficiently.”

The lower latency, less time sensitive applications such as load feeder phase balancing and general system hardening would continue as before in the back office.

Distributed intelligence platform

Itron’s response to this challenge is its OpenWay Riva™ platform, which combines the distributed computing capability with an equally innovative communication platform. With ‘Adaptive Communications Technology’, RF, PLC and Wi-Fi are combined in the same device, enabling the respective devices to automatically select the fastest communication paths between themselves and the utility.

On top of this run the apps, with some coming from Itron and others to come, via the Itron Riva Developers Community, from third party developers.

Mr Wolf says Itron is focusing initially on use cases connected to the company’s core competencies and where it sees value. These include theft detection, outage detection, volt/var optimization, direct load control and – made possible with the OpenWay  Riva platform – and high impedance connection detection.

“Running the numbers through our business case tools, we have estimated that utilities could see a 50% increase in benefits over a current smart meter centric solution with these use cases,” he says, adding that in addition there are a whole tranche of consumer benefits and ancillary opportunities that could accrue. “Compared with the smart meter centric view this offers a dramatic improvement in the business case.”

Towards an Internet of Things

While utilities in different geographies are starting to install Itron’s OpenWay Riva smart grid solution, Mr Wolf believes that the potential of distributed intelligence isn’t yet widely appreciated. “In Europe, for example, there is a strong focus on smart metering and this has framed policy. But smart meters are only one type of device resident on the network and a broader perspective is needed as these are multi-application networks whose value can extend well beyond smart metering.”

Likewise in the developing countries, where the infrastructure and economic challenges tend to be greater. “We saw in the telecoms revolution that many countries lacking infrastructure didn’t install landlines and went directly to cellular, and with distributed resources and microgrids set to play a key role in electrification these grid technologies offer a way to leapfrog and lead the way to a distributed power grid.”

The potential is also much wider beyond the power grid. With the current utility business model being disrupted, there is growing consensus that utilities need to move toward an energy service-type model. “Utilities have a great asset in their strong customer relationship and these new technologies will allow them to evolve their value proposition to continue to deliver value to their customers,” says Mr Wolf. “These technologies will be a powerful asset to have in place as smart cities emerge and in deploying them, utilities can be first movers in the Internet of Things market.”

Further information

More insight on the business case is available in the Engerati briefing, Value Add: How distributed intelligence and adaptive communications are transforming the business case for smart metering

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