How Utilities Use IoT For Asset Management Efficiency

In this guest editorial, Schneider Electric discusses how to sweat grid assets with connected technologies.
Published: Tue 27 Oct 2015

Once upon a time, utilities could guarantee the safety and reliability of the grid with limited asset information coming from substations, RTUs, relays, transformers, meters, and lines. The operation of the grid relied on an overdesigned system that allowed a large margin of error and strong redundancy.

But this came with a price, that today’s limits on investment (capex) and growing pressure on operating cost (opex) makes utilities turn to IT to better manage their assets. The result is that the industry is undergoing a substantial shift in asset management and operation – a shift to maintain these assets, and possibly prolong their lifespans, as the grid faces increasing disturbances.

Maximizing utility investments

The ultimate goal is to maximize investments by operating physical assets as close as possible to their physical limits, thanks to streamlined operations and dynamically fine-tuned settings. That requires information. But utilities often struggle to gather data and process it into information involving the wide variety of assets that support operations with engineering, accounting, maintenance and other business processes.

With asset management functionality commonly spread across several software applications, grid owners must manage a tedious process across multiple databases. This often leads to a decoupling from operation and planning and prevents strategic planners from capturing a holistic view and anticipating grid weaknesses.

Utilities also often try to adapt asset management systems initially intended for power stations (which are centralized) to grid management (which is geographically distributed). Within grid infrastructures, network topology changes frequently and vast amounts of asset information is added each day through meters, home automation devices, sensors, and other hardware.

From an operations management perspective, asset data must be integrated into systems and applications in a way that allows operators to deal with a single version of the truth.

Harnessing IoT for asset management

So how can utilities conquer these challenges? Part of the answer lies with the Internet of Things (IoT) – and the smart tools, harvested data and connected technologies of which it’s composed.

But first let’s look back. For many years, traditional IT managed information for humans. Think customer database, billing systems, call centre software, and workforce management tools. OT (operations technology), on the other hand, managed data for machines: Metering data, transformer and switch status, relay positions, and so on, all of which were coordinated in Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software systems. IT and OT existed as distinct domains managed by different corporate resources, usually the IT Department on one side and the Operations Department on the other side. But this paradigm is undergoing a radical change as OT systems are now connected through recognisable Internet Protocol (IP) addresses to the same networks as IT resources.

IT-OT convergence

Convergence of IT and OT, the Internet of Things, and the proliferation of big data are essential to asset management in the digital age. This free-flowing yet structured management of data also lets utilities control energy flows with a real-time understanding of the state of their assets. This can help operators optimize their systems based on the actual capacities of their assets.

Take advanced metering and customer relationship management (CRM), for example. These platforms can deliver a new level of clarity to customer service representatives, who can use local data to help customers solve common problems. For example, should a customer call to report an outage, the customer service representative can ping the meter to check its status and nearby consumers’ meters to confirm the kind of outage the caller is experiencing. Then they can troubleshoot. This two-way communication between the utility and the customer can also open the door to energy incentive programmes, where customers are rewarded for shifting energy use to off-peak times, thus relieving the grid and its assets.

Maintenance practices are another area where IoT offers large cost-saving opportunities. While routine maintenance programmes are a major part of the asset management process, they represent a huge time drain for grid managers. As updated hardware and software applications are integrated into the network, equipment performance in the field is measured remotely via a central control panel. Substation maintenance can then be adapted to the real operating conditions the equipment inside must endure.

Predictive asset monitoring

These connected technologies also allow new predictive models, where monitoring allows weakened assets to be discovered and proactively replaced, saving hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of euros or dollars per year by avoiding failures or unplanned (thus expensive) emergency servicing.

It’s clear that as the smart grid era advances, the integration of IT and OT, and the Internet of Things, will be critical to the development of efficient asset management programmes.

Further reading

To learn more about asset management and operational efficiency with connected technologies, as well as what lies ahead for utilities: Schneider Electric: Smart Utility ebook

If your utility wants to have a smart grid, you need to rely on robust tools to manage both normal operations and emergencies. A powerful Outage Management System, as part of a complete Advanced DMS, can help your utility achieve that goal: Schneider Electric: Enhancing Utility Outage Management System (OMS) Performance