Digital Transformation for Utilities – Operations

This third article on digital transformation for utilities will discuss applications of digitalization at the heart of any utility. In general, operations involve allocating, scheduling and deploying a variety of personnel, equipment, tools and vehicles that ensure a utility’s assets are serviced, maintained, replaced and restored to ensure reliability. Operations are responsible for running, maintaining and testing large quantities of equipment and structures through their life span and deploy the resources to administer those functions. There is a tremendous amount of data involved in overseeing these complex functions. This blog will discuss opportunities for better use of data by applying analytics and artificial intelligence to gain wisdom about a utility’s operations.

Evolving new technologies such as robust fiber and wireless networks, artificial intelligence, data analytics, remote sensors, automation and drones are creating opportunities to collect real-time high-quality data, understand it, gain strategic insights and make decisions with automated responsive actions. Repetitive tasks common in operations such as equipment testing, inspections and maintenance activities, detecting failures, dispatching resources, switching activities and tracking movement of personnel, equipment and vehicles can also use the results of data collection to make strategic decisions.

Many new uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are being developed for aerial line and substation inspections using still/video imagery and thermal/infrared scans, vegetation management and physical condition inspections such as  a broken insulator, missing bolt, rusting tower or rotting wood pole. Traditionally, these inspections have required helicopter observers, staff climbing towers/poles or driving along the right-of-way posing a high safety risk to employees. However, the UAVs flying (one day autonomously) along the conductor, around a tower or above a substation can collect data quickly and accurately. Data analytics and AI can recognize defects and anomalies and categorize them automatically while ranking them on the threat level and impact. This same data can also be used to identify encroaching plantation for vegetation management and hazard identification such as farm or construction equipment. As technology matures and autonomous flying beyond the line-of-sight reduces costs, utilities will be able to do inspections more frequently and have a more current health assessment of their system. A yearly, rather than 5 year assessment will allow utilities to model their system and identify the weak spots and predict the potential failure points while being better prepared to respond to failure events.

Similarly, data analytics applications are also being developed for UAVs for recording construction progress, inventory control to track goods as they’re received and checked-out, and perhaps one day to even make final as-built drawings from a scan of what was actually constructed.

The fast developing 3-D scanning technology makes it possible to scan an existing facility, such as a substation and produce its 3D model and a site layout drawing. This can make verification of site conditions, access and operational maneuverability easier without the need for multiple visits, improving safety and outage planning while saving time and money.
Virtual reality is another developing front with many use cases in operations such as training new technicians, providing remote assistance or helping workers to see what the fully completed system will look like during construction. While this technology can help speed up equipment assembly, maintenance and operations, and outage switching while reducing chances of error and improving safety.

A novel usage of data analytics is being implemented to identify root causes of disturbance on powerlines due to vegetation or bird contact. Each fault has a unique digital signature that can be detected in the voltage waveform using data analytics to recognize the various patterns. This detection can help utility engineers look for creeping issues before they become a problem and result in an outage or equipment failure.

Similarly, a utility has the ability to read the smart meter data to be able to detect issues within home appliances. Each appliance has a certain “load-signature” that allows the utility to harvest the smart meter data to detect issues, whether it is energy efficient or not. Utilities have the potential to use this data to provide residential customers useful information to help them save money on their bills and give early warnings on developing issues.

Some of these non-traditional solutions will cost more time and money in the short-term to develop, however, they will save and deliver better value for our ratepayers over time. In the future, leading utilities could even patent and sell their designs and services to implement these innovative solutions to other utilities for additional revenue streams.

Today, utility asset managers can have access to higher quality fresh data. For instance, with mobile devices with barcode scanners, technicians can record and tag the results of equipment maintenance and test results so their values can be tracked against acceptable norms. If this information can be monitored and tracked for all major or critical equipment, then you can access an accurate indication of the health of enterprise wide assets. With data at your fingertips, it is easy to start looking for patterns in assets nearing the end of optimal life before reliability metrics start being impacted.

In fact, it is possible to flag zones of system weakness by using data analytics with intelligent algorithms, which analyze various operating conditions, equipment failure scenarios and likely impacts. Then, by applying dynamic modelling of severe weather scenarios it could be possible to start predicting potential upcoming problems that may crop-up. Ultimately, this will help utilities to better focus their resources and response strategies on the weak spots. Having good asset health data equips utility executives with a dashboard to help them play various asset management scenarios, and to better focus their apex investments to get the most utilization from their existing assets while reducing costly system failures and customer disruptions.

Physical security of our electrical utilities that are classified as critical infrastructure is becoming an ever growing concern for operations. Today, security cameras are using data analytics to become intelligent by automatically detecting people, vehicles, unauthorized entry or attempts to scale fences and steal copper. With intrusion detection, operators get alarmed if the smart security cameras detect suspicious activity saving employees from having to perform physical site inspections.

These are some examples of applications being implemented and use cases being developed in electrical utilities today, however, there are many others that will come to light as more utilities start looking at digitalization for their operations. Data analytics and AI are a powerful set of tools and utilities are only starting to scratch the surface of what is possible. Canadian utilities have access to a modern communication infrastructures, computing, skilled labor force and technology savvy customers. These are all advantages and important determinants for successful outcomes on the journey to digitalization.