Connecting dispersed assets for improved monitoring and control

The connection of multiple new energy sources to the electrical grid has both physical and economic impacts, which must be addressed - a guest article from Multitech.
Published: Tue 11 Sep 2018

For more than 100 years, electrical energy was primarily produced at large centralised power plants and distributed long distances across the electrical grid system.

New technologies, a changing regulatory environment, and consumer demand are creating opportunities for more decentralised energy generation, distributed among solar and wind facilities as well as traditional coal, nuclear and natural gas. 

At the same time, the fossil fuel industry is on the rise again, and the expanding infrastructure needed to drill, refine and transport oil and natural gas is critical to the smooth, safe and environmentally sound operation of the global economy.

Distributed monitoring

Protecting these energy assets from outside interference through long-distance hackers or physical intrusion is imperative. In the case of hazardous materials, both personal and the environment may be at risk during a breach. Monitoring every device and sensor to ensure performance is optimised and within bounds is essential.

These tasks call for a distributed monitoring network that can transmit sensor data securely and cost-effectively to a data centre or cloud-based system. LoRaWAN is a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) specification for wirelessly connecting low power sensors and other devices spread over a several-mile-wide area in a secure, bi-directional network.

The LoRaWAN network architecture is a star-of-stars topology, wirelessly connecting individual end-devices, such as sensors, to one or more gateways, connection. MultiTech, a Mounds View, Minnesota company which designs, develops and manufactures wireless communications equipment for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), offers a LoRa technology-based product line ideal for monitoring the “things” in the energy sector, such as line sensors, tank monitoring, power plants, refineries and solar/wind arrays.

"Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems (DERMS), by which load is balanced among multiple resources such as solar, traditional coal, nuclear, wind based on demand and availability, is done by enabling thousands of endpoints in a wide area,” explains Moira Young of MultiTech. “LoRa uniquely enables the monitoring of such varied resources to synergise the data.”

Wide-area networking for the energy industry

Utilities and municipal or private energy providers working to integrate multiple sources of supply, including solar/ wind as well as traditional coal and nuclear, need real-time visibility of underlying assets, and flexible controls to ensure that bidirectional and variable power flows do not destabilise the grid while maintaining maximum energy efficiency.

For companies in the oil and gas sector, foolproof daily monitoring of remote assets, such as tanks and pipelines, is essential to ensure all systems are constantly monitored for safety, adjusted for efficiency, and tracked for performance. In the past, these activities involved direct human presence at each remote location, making them costly and time consuming, as well as prone to errors – especially when transferring data to a centralised database.

The MultiConnect series of gateways and embedded modules leverages the low-frequency, unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) radio band, which avoids the use of licensed cellular bands. This is especially important in avoiding the cost of connecting each individual asset – which may number in the thousands – even for transmitting very small amounts of data sporadically, such as from a pipeline sensor or utility meter.

Connecting physical assets to business processes

MultiConnect devices for LoRa technology can be deployed as a gateway in a secure private network, connecting widely spaced endpoints in a star topography, allowing a single gateway to support thousands of endpoints.

They operate in a spread spectrum, which remains below the noise floor, and features sub-GHz frequencies which can penetrate through concrete and deep into buildings. The product line comes with a choice of backhaul options, including cellular and Ethernet. Because replacing batteries in far-flung locations can be burdensome, the MultiConnect series operates with ultra-low power consumption, meaning the battery will likely degrade on its own before the device uses all its power.

MultiTech equipment helps energy companies with a wide variety of networking tasks, including monitoring of delivery trucks, tanks and pipelines, automated meter reading, emergency alerts, environmental monitoring, and dynamic demand response.