Multi-purpose networks key to unlocking smart city value

Use cases to demonstrate how future-proofing networks and ensuring continued value is a key concern for ‘smart utilities’.
Published: Wed 19 Sep 2018

Smart cities will demand many changes from utilities, in addition to those already disrupting the energy landscape.

Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and distributed energy resources (DERs) are changing the world around us, shifting expectations and lifestyles.

Among all of this is a radical change for utilities, too, thanks to the requirements of a truly ‘smart’ city. Charles Jones, Product Manager, Networked Solutions at Itron says: “The fundamental paradigm shift taking place is the transition from separate electricity, water and gas networks to a single, multi-commodity and multi-use network that incorporates infrastructure for smart cities as well.”

In a recent Engerati webinar, ‘Use cases for multi-purpose networks to improve flexibility, reliability and value’, Jones discussed the ways in which we can expect to see the utility paradigm changing, as well as how to best leverage new technologies to increase revenue.

The active network for operational awareness

Jones says: “We can no longer sustain the single-use networks, and instead we now have to transition to a network which is intelligent and interconnected. Instead of just being electricity or water or gas network, it needs to be a streetlight network, a smart cities network, an integrated DER network to prepare us for what we’re moving towards in the future. All of it interconnected, communicating and able to take local action.”

This is what Itron refers to as the active grid. So, what does that mean for utilities?

For one thing, Jones explains that for the future grid and smart cities to be profitable and beneficial, utilities need to have better operational awareness. In the presentation, he refers to a timeline of operational awareness development, saying that these developments stalled around the 2000s.

He explains: “There’s not been a cost-effective way of getting that operational awareness all the way to the edge. We could do SCADA end-points or something similar in every customer’s home, but that really isn’t scalable or affordable.”

However, with new developments in smarter, more efficient distributed intelligence advanced metering interface (AMI) technology, utilities are able to have a SCADA-like operational awareness all the way to the edge of the grid.

This development of a unified, interoperable platform for energy resources and smart cities is what Itron calls the active network.

Charles Jones explains the analytic application options for utilities with distributed intelligence capabilities.

Use cases for distributed intelligence and edge analytics

The ability to have intelligence and analytics at the edge is not, however, the end of centralised, back-office analytics. Instead, Jones says, these go hand in hand - the need is for distributed intelligence. He says: “There are going to be some situations where it makes the most sense when you have to have a full system awareness to analyse that from the back office.”

However, he says, there are many use cases where a localised view is far more advantageous. He outlines two examples; high impedance detection and load disaggregation.

He explains the importance of each of these use cases, starting with high impedance detection - the detecting the hot-spots on a network.

He says: “The reason these are called hotspots is because every time a current is drawn through that poor connection there are losses. Those losses come out in the way of heat, which causes the connection to expand which slowly breaks it down. Over time these hotspots become hotter and hotter, and the wires heating up can cause voltage problems throughout the circuit.”

These happen naturally over time to every utility, and cause voltage complaints which don’t typically resolve themselves quickly. As many utilities currently don’t have distributed intelligence capability, the first indication of this problem is often a call from the customer.

The best case scenario, Jones explains, is that after a single, albeit costly rollout and monitoring process, the issue may be found and resolved - however, this isn’t always the case, and hotspots can take multiple visits and maintenance efforts to resolve.

With distributed intelligence, however, meters detect high impedance connections as they occur. Jones says: “The meter can calculate every second the apparent impedance back to the transformer, thereby constantly keeping tabs on what the impedance was and storing significant changes where they occur. That meter can send alerts back to the back office to let you know where those problems are.”

With this increased visibility, utilities can tell well in advance where degradation and difficulties may occur thanks to the distributed intelligence from the meters, allowing them to book in repairs and maintenance well in advance and save operational expenditure. Jones says: “With these insights, we’re able to be way more efficient with how we deal with these problems, and we’re also able to address customer concerns before they become a full complaint.”

In the webinar, Charles Jones gives an overview of multiple case studies from successful multi-purpose network implementations.

Improving efficiency with load disaggregation

Load disaggregation, on the other hand, enables utilities to disaggregate individual loads, which Jones says is an area of increasing interest in utilities: “Utilities are starting to recognise there are lots of different efficiency programmes, different kinds of rates and value added services that they can offer around load disaggregation.”

Jones says that in addition to data privacy concerns from consumers, the difficulty for utilities seeking to implement load disaggregation capabilities is that it requires them to dispatch an electrician to install specialised equipment inside the home - an often costly and invasive process for both parties.

To avoid this difficulty, Itron has created a system by which utilities can download an application directly to Itron meters that enables load disaggregation without having to enter the home.

With distributed intelligence enabled through analytics at the edge device, insights into appliance performance, degradation and consumption can be gained and used to reduce consumption and improve service. Jones says: “A typical utility is going to know the average usage of every household of the street, but what they and the customer aren’t often going to know is what appliances specifically are contributing to that.”

With the ability to report on appliance and household efficiency to consumers, both the utility and the end-user reap the benefits of more cost-efficient and improved service.

These are but two of the many possible, but yet untapped, opportunities and use cases for distributed intelligence in multi-purpose networks.

Any network development moving towards smart cities will be costly, but necessary. Key to these modernisations, Jones summarises, is ensuring optimal flexibility, reliability and value: “Networks really should become multi-purpose - they shouldn’t be single-use. Distributed intelligence is going to be very important for future-proofing our networks, and for addressing the needs of the next 20 years of rapid change. We believe that analytics needs to happen in the right places, and edge intelligence is the only way to do it.”