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How the Internet of Things can help keep the lights on

Image credit: Gary Swift

Will IoT technology provide a much-needed lifeline for Britain’s ageing and vulnerable power infrastructure?

Few companies can afford to have their operations halted by unexpected downtime, but for the energy grid, potential power failures could plunge parts of, or entire, countries into darkness. The cost of ensuring that Britain can switch its lights back on following a failure has grown by £12m in the past year. Naturally, developed economies are not at high risk of power blackouts, apart from in the most extreme circumstances. However, as the UK’s infrastructure continues to age, industry leaders need to review the operational lifespan of this capital equipment if the country is to avoid blackouts in the future.

Recent years have seen an influx of new standards, regulations and carbon-reduction targets inundate the energy industry – not to mention mounting customer demand. Combined with the introduction of Ofgem’s RIIO framework to set price controls for network companies, the growing trend towards microgeneration and rising pressure to consider alternative generation technology means that leading or managing an energy business has never been so complex.

What’s more, accommodating these adjustments with ageing infrastructure that includes more than 400,000 substations, many of which are incredibly isolated, is both geographically and technologically challenging. 

Substations were originally designed as islands of automation, unable to transfer data back to the network without manual intervention. Without connected infrastructure, an engineer would have had to physically visit the substation to export the assets and data necessary to conduct and examine a thorough off-site analysis. During the time it would take to complete this procedure, the information that the engineer had gathered would have become out of date and, as a result, the report would retain little value. Moreover, if the data shows any sign of failure or deterioration of power generation, it would be almost impossible to pinpoint the cause of the problem, as the engineer wouldn’t have access to any real-time or corresponding data.

The first step to combat these challenges is to deploy intelligent SCADA software. Using Internet of Things (IoT)-led architecture, our intrepid substation engineer could automatically collect data and archive it in the cloud. By storing all substation data in a centralised network, engineers can analyse real-time and historical data of any substation in the network.

Collecting process data is a positive step forward for the energy sector and its use of IoT, but if this huge expanse of data is left to gather dust the information will be rendered useless. When choosing SCADA software, it is important to look for an application that can also deliver business intelligence through its data, using automated analysis.

According to Gartner, the adoption of big data analytics technology is one of the key trends in the energy sector, especially for organisations hoping to reduce costs and enhance competitive advantage.

Some SCADA applications will deliver this through predictive analytics. Combining real-time and historical reports of energy transmission with the datasets of other substations in the network, the software will generate a comprehensive overview of each substation’s performance and, in turn, the predicted lifespan of its capital equipment.

Britain’s outdated energy infrastructure is becoming a challenge for the sector. The ageing substations used for power distribution could cancel out the industry’s ability to provide a reliable and cost-​effective provision for its users.

Other developed industrial nations, including the USA, have already suffered power shortages due to the vulnerability of infrastructure. This is estimated to have cost the US’s economy billions. Considering the serious financial implications in the UK, it is essential that the industry future-proofs its infrastructure.

SCADA systems are the reigning king of monitoring and control in industrial facilities. For Britain’s widely dispersed energy infrastructure, a greater uptake of IoT technologies and SCADA software would not only improve operational control of substations, but extend their lifespan too.

Martyn Williams is managing director of industrial automation software specialist Copa-Data UK

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