Nick Smye, principal consultant, Mason Advisory Company strategy, Electricity transmission/distribution, Energy networks, Strategy & management, Opinion

The Internet of Things is opening doors for utility companies, ensuring their essential services are delivered efficiently and reliably and helping them to monitor both supply and demand.

For many people, when they think of IoT they might imagine a gadget in the fridge that tells them they are running out of beer, or a phone app that can close the curtains. But for business – and especially complex industries such as utilities – the revolution is only just beginning.

The technology is already being used to provide early actionable diagnostics and prevent delays in service. The advantages are that it is inexpensive to install and deploy yet flexible, highly reliable and with the potential to educate and inform other parts of the business.

In the future, monitoring will be key to making every utility more efficient and helping it to adapt to the challenges of more renewable energy and increased demand and applications for power.

Take the example of Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), which has embarked upon a four-year pilot project involving sensors on wooden poles on its Trident Line on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.

SSEN partnered with Ekkosense to provide a remote monitoring system and data analytics, the Ekkosense sensors and linked software monitor the movement of the pole, giving an early alert of the likelihood of failure, and the impact of inclement weather, viewable via the IoT.

For SSEN, whose electricity poles run across remote and wild terrain, using the IoT to help detect and locate the problem means fault teams can be directed to the problem area and can mitigate against a power supply failure. Pole failures are rare for SSEN but when they happen it can involve a helicopter and ground crews to help locate the problem and then restore the circuit back to full operation. The sensors integrated with the IoT can reduce the timescales associated with these emergencies.

The £1 million pilot project, funded by the Network Innovation Allowance (NIA), is also testing if a reliable, resilient autonomous power supply can be developed to run the sensors, and if a Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) wireless communications network can be used reliably in a hostile rural environment.

Information provided by any sensor can be analysed by a utility or outsourced. It can also be shared and stored on the cloud. The information provided by the sensors could eventually be used to engineer the poles so that they are more resistant to wind damage.

In China, the IoT is being used to prevent manhole cover thefts. There are large numbers of covers belonging to several different utilities and services and ownership is very difficult to track. TelChina’s project, in Changle County, Shangdong Province, involves smart detectors placed under 400 covers across the city.

They integrate with Huawei OceanConnect, an open ecosystem built on IoT, cloud computing and big data technologies. An alert is triggered if a cover is moved and that is shared with inspectors who have portable terminals with apps that can locate the problem, feedback, and get the cover replaced before someone is injured or it causes a traffic problem.

There are several reasons why the IoT has become more accessible and affordable to businesses over the past three to five years:

  • New wireless technologies have better ranges
  • Many mobile operators can now offer IoT services
  • Industry standards for low power wide area bearers have been quickly established
  • Battery life on devices has been extended so that they can now last more than ten years
  • Devices are simpler, so they can be manufactured and sold much more cost effectively
  • Running costs are low and devices are quick to deploy

The development of LPWA networks is key as they can support large numbers of devices cost effectively but consume very little power. This is especially useful to utilities which deploy smart meters for water or energy in areas which are beyond the reach of existing wireless solutions, such as in basements or under manhole covers.

Vodafone is testing a LPWA network in the town of Moncada, in Valencia, Spain with the water utility Aguas de Valencia. Its signal has managed to reach all of the remote and obscure test locations and it is hoped that the battery life could reach 10 years – which is about the same as the smart meter, meaning LPWA-connected smart meters would require minimal maintenance.

The IoT also offers flexibility in the way it can be deployed and monitored. If you are a utility you could buy a mobile service from Vodafone, you can go out and buy the device yourself and host the data analysis in your data centre or pay someone to do the analytics or you could put it in the cloud somewhere. It’s a very flexible solution for utilities.

Essential services, rather than mission critical operations, have been the main benefactor from the pilot schemes and tests carried out so far.

But utility companies should be thinking about IoT now. Gartner  calculates that around 8.4 billion IoT devices were in use in 2017, up 31 per cent on the previous year. It predicts this will reach 20.4bn by 2020. In 2017, it estimated total spending on IoT was $2 trillion.

Meanwhile analyst IDC predicts worldwide spending on IoT will be $772.5 billion this year, with utilities the third highest industry spender ($73 billion), dominated by paying for smart grids for electricity, gas and water.