The Evolving Role of Sensors in an Expanding Utility Communications...
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The Evolving Role of Sensors in an Expanding Utility Communications System

By Kumi Premathilake, Division Vice President, AMI and Services at Hubbell Power Systems

Kumi Premathilake, Division Vice President, AMI and Services at Hubbell Power Systems

The widespread adoption of sensor technology has had a transformative effect on utilities’ operations. Sensors have helped digitize distribution systems. They have helped increase network visibility and provide the situational awareness utilities need to quickly identify and resolve problems while increasing service reliability.

Today, sensors constitute a diverse array of sophisticated devices that can collect and analyze a vast amount of information and do so with accuracy, precision and increasing speed. They are creating new options for utilities of all kinds, helping them to obtain better information and enhance their operations. They are also playing an integral role in managing the increasing complexity and variability in their distribution systems. And looking ahead, they will hasten progress toward the realization of the broader vision that the future requires.

A look at sensors today

Devices like smart grid sensors for electric utilities, acoustic leak detectors for water utilities, and gas sensors for natural gas providers are frequently top of mind when discussing sensor technology within their respective industry categories. However, other devices, such as smart meters, can also function as sensors, enhancing visibility into the network.

While all of these devices have particular uses, each type provides insights that help operators make informed decisions, providing higher speed of information, accuracy, and precision in determining the state of the distribution system so that the utility can take appropriate action. 

Sensors and electric utilities

The distribution network is the backbone of an electricity delivery system, yet it is often the largest unmonitored part of the grid. Consider this fact: distribution networks comprise the largest part of a complex system stretching well over 12 million miles in the U.S and Europe combined. 

Due to its size, this part of the grid has remained largely unmonitored, and that can lead to reliability issues. For example, the Edison Electric Institute attributes 90 per cent of outages in the U.S. to issues occurring on the distribution network. 

As aging assets start to break down, it becomes challenging to troubleshoot grid health without real-time data. Moreover, without situational awareness, grid operators will also struggle to manage the capabilities of the increasing number and diversity of assets and integration of new devices for distributed energy resources onto the grid. 

Smart grid sensors, which typically go on medium-voltage lines, offer a solution to these problems. Easy to deploy, these sensors alert the utility to faults on the lines, providing real-time load and voltage data. In addition to enabling utilities to maintain situational awareness of what is happening in the field and respond promptly, this capability allows for emergency switching and load transfers to take place while avoiding other issues that might arise due to overloading of other equipment.

While smart grid sensors may come to mind when talking about these devices, smart electric meters can also act as a type of sensor. Installed at customer residences, these meters can provide information about what is happening at home beyond energy consumption, such as a power outage. 

Listening for water leaks 

On the water side, acoustic leak sensing technology integrated with a network helps water utilities avoid costly catastrophic pipe failures and reduce real water losses. With these systems, utilities can remotely monitor and manage leaks to reduce service interruptions, and by deploying them across a fixed network, they can also correlate information and pinpoint leaks more accurately going forward. 

We’ve seen an increasing number of utilities embracing these underground acoustic sensors. For example, a major water main break in the downtown section of Orlando, Florida, resulted in substantial disruption and cost to repair. The local utility commission then implemented a pilot program, deploying an acoustic leak detection system along a lengthy stretch of roadway, with the goal of not only preventing another major disruption but also locating small problems before they become large and expensive ones.

Utilities can also take information from a smart water meter and compare it with normal flow based on the customer’s established usage to help detect anomalies that point to a leak at the residence. For instance, the utility serving one of America’s major cities looks for unusual usage patterns in the data collected by its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) system. 

"Sensor technology continues to advance including the use of artificial intelligence—in particular, machine learning—that will enable us to enhance the level of analytics that you get from the sensors, and build a library of information that can be used to refine those analytics"

Each day, the program analyzes data collected by the utility from the AMI network to identify and notify customers when it spots unusual water consumption. To identify potential problem consumption, the utility looks at the historical daily consumption pattern of each customer and compares it to consumption over a period of three or four days. Usage over a certain threshold, typically set at four times a customer’s typical daily consumption, triggers a notice to the customer via phone, email and text. This capability benefits both the consumer and the utility.

Detecting gas leaks

As their infrastructure continues to age, gas utilities are also looking to technology such as methane detection to mitigate problems. Data from these sensors can improve safety for both consumers and utilities by detecting issues that could arise in the home or on the distribution network. Thanks to advances in technology, these meters now combine the ability to detect methane precisely, at very low levels, with cost-effective economics that enables utilities to deploy this technology in very high volumes so that they can be put in every home.

Improving visibility through integrated information

However, sensors alone are not enough. They need to be part of an infrastructure with a communications network that serves to interconnect the intelligence from one device to the other. Essentially, three core pieces are necessary for sensors to add value. First, of course, is the sensor, but along with it, you also need a communications network such as an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) to deliver the information collected from the sensors to a cloud level data repository. Then, powerful software capabilities able to integrate across multiple sensors and field devices are required to analyze the data and make the information collected actionable to its users.

Using sensor data and leveraging with other data you get back from the distribution system is how operators can better orchestrate the entire distribution network. Today, we can further drive additional usage, integrating the information with automated devices such as reclosers, cap banks, and related equipment, enabling the utility to further improve reliability for its customers and reduce operational costs.

With this holistic approach, the value of sensors increases exponentially. That’s because now it’s no longer just a sensor sitting somewhere where somebody goes, checks, and gets that information. It’s now part of a bigger ecosystem that will comprise the grid of the future and enable the realization of the distribution network of the future.

Combining sensors with advanced data analytics software is even more powerful as it can help improve diagnostics, prediction and prescription of the network’s condition during normal and extreme-event conditions. For instance, our grid monitoring platform continually monitors distribution lines to identify events that may cause a variety of problems for utilities. It also detects patterns of events and activity that are often precursors to more severe occurrences. Once the sensor detects these recurring patterns, the utility can dispatch line crews to investigate the cause. 

The future of sensors 

In addition to helping utilities enhance their operations, we can see how sensors can play other, previously unforeseen roles like enhancing safety. Because they can pinpoint certain issues on an electric line, for instance, sensors can eliminate the need for linemen to drive out to explore broad swaths of territory in sometimes difficult conditions. And, at a time when wildfires are becoming more prevalent and more destructive, smart grid sensor technology can also help electric utilities mitigate the risk of wildfires.

Of course, sensor technology continues to advance including the use of artificial intelligence—in particular, machine learning—that will enable us to enhance the level of analytics that you get from the sensors, and build a library of information that can be used to refine those analytics. 

With all these advances and advantages, the use of sensors will continue to become more important and more widespread. All of this bodes well for the future of sensors—and with that, the future of utilities that tap into the potency of this powerful resource.

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