How Internet of Things (IoT) Technologies are Used in Utilities

Internet of Things (IoT) Utility Applications

The Internet of Things is a transformative technology, and has impacted the world in countless ways. In 2008, when the term “Internet of Things” was first coined, there were more Internet-connected devices in the world than people. In 2020, that number is expected to increase to over 50 billion. One industry where IoT is making an especially large impact is one that already encompassed many millions of machines and devices: Public Utilities.

IoT is about taking data from physical objects and manipulating that data in the digital world. The reverse is also true, and IoT has led to many innovations in remote digital controls of physical objects. The utilities industry, by necessity, has been collecting data from countless meters across the grid since its inception. In a way, utilities have been leveraging IoT concepts long before the term was on anyone’s lips.

Perhaps that similarity is why the utilities industry has been so quick and so successful in its adoption of the Internet of Things. Smart meters and distribution combine to create a smart grid, and the whole enterprise works much more efficiently and productively than ever before. Using the technology of connected devices, components of the grid can for the first time make automated, autonomous decisions to optimize the performance of the system as a whole.

The time is right for these improvements, too. The world’s power needs are greater than ever before, and our increasing reliance on technology means that those needs will only increase. The development of renewable power sources like solar and wind power help the environment, but the management of those power sources require new degrees of sophistication and data analytics that were unheard of in the past.

The utilities industry is leveraging IoT in many important ways. Here are some of the most dramatic.

Smart Meters

Today’s processors are cheap, tiny, and powerful. A washing machine, toaster, or watch can easily have comparable computing power to a smartphone, and that is more power than was available to even the most advanced utilities meters a scant few decades ago. Today’s smart meters can send frequent data updates to the central management office, and even receive shut-off or other commands without the physical presence of maintenance personnel.

In the United States, these smart meters are now commonplace in California, Texas, and other states. The richness and frequency of data they are able to communicate allows the utilities provider to implement pricing plans based on peak usage. Energy rates can increase during the times of the most usage, such as early evening. Most notably, these meters allow for utilities providers to offer lower pricing to consumers who move their heavy usage times to off-peak hours. This ultimately lightens the load on the utilities provider by allowing them to spread their load across the entire day, making the entire enterprise more efficient, safer, and more environmentally friendly.

Smart Grid

Today’s network of meters and distribution is a smart grid, able to make decisions from the edge units (the meters) on the fly. Smart meters are aware of their location, their usage levels, and how those variables compare to other nearby units. Among other things, this allows for outages to be much more quickly noticed, diagnosed, and resolved. Smart meters can continuously ping nearby meters for their status. When these edge units go offline, the meters themselves can create a model of the outage to report back to the central office. The model includes a precise map of the outage and actionable data on its cause. This occurs essentially in real time, a far cry from the hours-long outages of the past.

These meters are able to detect other sorts of problems than outages, as well. Theft and vandalism is much more effectively combated by smart meters, as the utilities company can receive a near-instant alert of any damage to a meter. In the past, this type of sabotage could go unnoticed until the monthly visit of the meter reader.

Application Agnosticism

The integration of computers into the smart grid has allowed the creation of what is essentially a utilities API. Smart meters from different manufacturers and even different service providers, distribution load balancing devices, and multiple products on the consumer market can easily interface with smart meters, allowing for new heights of optimization and control of energy usage.

The OpenADR Alliance, a non-profit trade association for the utilities industry, was formed in 2010 to ensure technical cooperation in the development of these applications. Today, there are over 130 firms in the Alliance, all working together to ensure tomorrow’s smart grid are more reliable than ever before, while realizing new features and services for customers to allow them to more efficiently use the grid than has ever been possible.

Consumer Applications

Those consumer applications are where the utilities industry truly leverages the Internet of Things. IoT is, if nothing else, a thing of the masses. Sensors and devices are inexpensive, powerful, and shockingly easy to use. Today’s energy consumers can make use of a large number of devices and products to optimize their utilities usage. This helps lower their bills and also reduce their environmental impact, making the technology a win-win for the users, the utilities industries, and the world itself.

Smart Power Meters – Countless smart switches, plugs, and home meters allow consumers to monitor the precise energy usage of their home, of an outlet, or even of an individual appliance. Never before has it been so easy to understand the impact our air conditioning makes on the power bill, or why it is so important to turn off lights when a room is empty.

Smart Water Meters – The technology extends to water usage, as well. By placing smart water meters on the water main or on appliances like a washing machine, consumers can take meticulous care not to overuse water in times of drought. Some smart water meters take the idea a step further, allowing for an automatic or remotely activated shutoff. This is especially useful when homes are vacant for long periods of time, turning a burst water pipe from an expensive disaster into a minor nuisance.

Although IoT has been applied to an incredibly wide range technologies and markets, utilities are one of those areas where it can truly change the world for the better. By helping us to monitor and optimize our energy consumption, IoT might actually save the planet.