Utilities and behind-the-meter energy assets - the value of connectivity

Industrial Internet of Things platforms and flexibility in communication technology are opening up new revenue streams for energy providers.
Published: Wed 11 Apr 2018

Imagine this demand-response scenario: a utility company has a large commercial and industrial customer that has thousands of Uninterruptible Power Supply units across the world.

An Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) communication infrastructure gives the utility behind-the-meter access to the customer's energy assets. Using this real-time interaction between the customer and the utility they together create a tariff that rewards load shifting.

This type of capability, to shape loads on a near real-time basis, is one case of connecting customers’ distributed energy resources, albeit an advanced one, says Brad Witter, Chief Technology Officer of Blue Pillar, a US-based developer of IIoT platform technology.

“Most use cases for a behind-the-meter IIoT platform focus on measurement and verification."

"Think of utilities needing real-time third party metering to settle and verify that a big solar implementation is providing the value that it was originally funded for or for validating the production of on-site renewable assets.”

The capability of utilities to connect any customer asset that stores, generates, consumes or measures energy in order to offer energy services has become widespread due to a drop in the costs of communication technology, says Witter.

Building a network for energy assets

Typically the only communication approach in the utility toolbox has been SCADA, says Witter.

"This type of network doesn't work for general customer engagement because customer network requirements are different.

He adds: "And using those technologies over cellular is highly inefficient and costly and leads to a brittle, insecure environment when you talk about trying to connect those assets to the cloud or through some sort of cellular network."

 

The development of Industrial IoT networks, explains Witter, has allowed for economies of scale and "the cost to connect those behind-the-meter assets has gone down dramatically".

Richard Stamvik, Ecosystem Business Development at communication technology company MultiTech, agrees that there are two factors facilitating connecting behind-the-meter customer assets.

The first is technically better solutions, says Stamvik. "Power consumption-wise and cost-wise, technologies such as LTE category M and NB-IoT as well as unlicensed technologies like LoRa are better suited to IIoT-focused applications than their power hungry and more expensive traditional cellular counterparts like 2G, 3G and 4G."

The other factor offering utilities flexibility when connecting customers' distributed assets is cost models. "Utilities don't have to rely on operators offering an operating expenditure only-based model. There is the option to buy into unlicensed technologies like LoRa where anyone can play and the cost model is mainly CAPEX/capital expenditure-based or a mix of the two."

Blue Pillar's Witter notes that in 90% of customer deployments, the communication technology is supplied on a service-oriented model. "The commercial and industrial energy service providing customer is not buying gateways or sensors, they're buying data covering a certain telemetry range at a certain percentage of quality."

Use case determines connectivity

But just as the business case varies for connecting distributed behind-the-meter assets, so will the connectivity solutions.

Witter explains: "We almost start with the end in mind - what is the goal of the connectivity? The answer to that question leads into the different types of equipment and how we're going to connect to them."

Blue Pillar is working on two proof of concepts in the UK using Multitech's gateway technology, and will explain more about them in an Engerati webinar - 'Connecting behind-the-meter assets: Enabling new energy services'.

Witter says the first is to create a detailed load study for a grocery store to assess the impact of installing batteries or solar to give the customer "a pre-picture from a measurement and verification perspective".

In a second proof of concept, a utility is reaching behind the meter through an IIoT platform to create a load shifting programme with an oil refinery.

Find out more about these projects as well as the communication technology enabling them in the webinar featuring MultiTech’s Richard Stamvik and Blue Pillar’s Brad Witter.