Machine-to-machine communication has a decades-long history in the utilities industries. The first electric meter that could be read remotely was manufactured in the 1970s by Metretek, Inc. Smart meters, which allow for two way communication between a device and a central server, came later. As smart meters rolled out, power customers found they were no longer being billed based on “estimated usage,” while electricity providers no longer needed to pay hourly wages for battalions of human meter readers.
Smart meters for electricity, natural gas and water have become ubiquitous in recent years. They represent one of the many highly visible examples of M2M communication. Yet, as beneficial as this evolution has been to the utility industries, companies in the generation, transmission and distribution segments often need custom M2M solutions that fit their unique business and technical requirements. Here are five areas where M2M custom solutions have had dramatic impact on utility companies.
Electrical distribution lines have traditionally been fitted with fault monitors that turn on a signal light when improper currents were detected. Maintenance crews routinely inspected such monitors and made repairs as needed. As the U.S. power system began its transformation into the “smart grid,” monitors with a cellular radio were put in service to report improper current measurements.
When one of these monitors reports a fault, a service crew can now be dispatched directly to the point of failure. This has several effects.
- Customers experience fewer and shorter outages.
- The distribution company can eliminate the cost of continuously looking for faulty power lines.
- In addition, with the ability to proactively monitor power lines for potential problems, reliability of the entire distribution system is enhanced.
For decades the utility industry, and others, have predicted the need to maintain an asset based on how many “cycles” it had operated. Predictive maintenance using M2M communication is entirely different. It relies on sensors in the asset itself, and an M2M communications network that sends a data stream back to a server. The server analyzes incoming data and alerts humans when it is time to maintain the asset.
Case in point: Power transformers used to distribute electricity to homes and businesses are increasingly being manufactured with Dissolved Gas Analysis monitors. Such monitors analyze the insulating oil used in sub-station and other power transformers to detect gases that dissolve when the transformer is nearing a failure point.
With the replacement costs of some transformers running between $2 and $5 million, the cost of a monitor and M2M communication infrastructure is nominal. Similarly, wind turbines operate in harsh climatic conditions and are increasingly being monitored from afar, rather than taking the outdated “wait and hope it keeps working” approach to maintenance. M2M custom solutions enable predictive maintenance all across the utility landscape.
The advent of smart metering with its two-way communication capabilities gives power companies knowledge they couldn’t have before M2M networking. For instance, consumers might use more power at certain times of day. Or, their base usage might increase over time as they plug in an ever growing number of devices and appliances that are always on. Young growing families might consume power differently than, say, the elderly population.
No matter what energy consumption patterns emerge among various demographics, M2M custom solutions allow power companies to adjust their marketing messages for each segment of their customer base. Similarly, water and sewerage companies that bill based on gallons consumed and on gallons disposed through the sewer system can bill more accurately: A consumer filling a swimming pool need not be billed for the sewerage fee if the water is never discharged through the sewer. M2M communication brings new opportunities to marketing departments within every segment of the utility industry.
With improvements in the areas summarized above, it’s clear that custom M2M communication solutions add to profitability. M2M communications share intelligence between a vast, non-sentient world of machines and those humans who are responsible for the success and growth of the business. The advancements made possible through custom M2M solutions can improve profitability, the most important metric in any business.