Cities avoid blackouts and leaky toilets as utilities turn to the cloud

14 October, 2016

When storm clouds are brewing, utilities can rely on the data cloud now to let them know when the power is out and dispatch repair crews even before calls start flooding in from customers.

Modern meters track water, gas and electricity usage with the computing power of a smart phone and interact with a network full of sensors, letting utilities manage the system in real-time from their headquarters. That gives them the ability to avoid blackouts and alert customers if they’re nearing their electricity budget or their toilet has a leak.

Itron, whose meters, sensors and services have been making cities and their grids smarter around the globe for almost 40 years, is starting to help them respond faster and more efficiently with new cloud-based computing services. The Liberty Lake, Washington-based company, one of the world’s largest providers of technology and services for the power, water and gas industries, now is offering to manage the gathering of all that data and then crunch it, giving municipalities valuable insight in today’s resource-hungry world.

“When people think about the Internet of Things, they start talking about pie-in-the-sky stuff,” says Greg Richards, Itron’s vice president of DevOps, who works to integrate software development and IT operations. “But what we’re doing has tangible benefits for the world.”

The shift in Itron’s business model comes as both cloud computing and the use of managed services grow ever more prevalent. Gartner expects the cloud-computing industry to reach $250 billion by next year as it overtakes the growth of on-premise computing workloads by 35 percent in the next five years. And Navigant Research estimates the market for managed services for smart grids will reach $7 billion globally by 2020, up from $1.7 billion now.

“The Internet of Things has allowed us to deliver a platform to Itron to ingest sensor information in real time, from millions of sensors, and expose and derive better business insights through that aggregation of data,” says Charlie Jaquet, a principal solutions strategist for Microsoft’s Azure IoT platform who has been working with Itron on its digital transformation. “That’s the value proposition that Itron customers are thirsty for.”

Itron chose the Cortana Intelligence Suite services, including machine learning and PowerBI, to help make it possible: It collects the data from utilities’ sensors, aggregates it as it streams in, stores it all in a so-called data lake, uses Azure machine learning to derive helpful insights and then spits it back out in a visual, easily understandable way through the Power BI service. And Microsoft’s global footprint will mean Itron doesn’t have to build data centers near all its customers, Jaquet says.

That real-time computing power will make it easier and faster for utilities to break out of their historical constraints and improve not only convenience, but safety, too.

Gas companies will be able to more quickly discover methane leaks based on pressure readings and automatically shut down the related pipes. Power companies can match sensors’ output with weather data to predict when there’s a risk of a storm-related outage, and then overlay it on Bing maps to surmise that two sensors probably stopped communicating with each other because a tree just fell on a certain power line. Instead of having to wait for customers to call and tell them the power is out, they’ll be able to get out ahead of the problem and maybe prevent someone from being hurt by driving over the downed line.

And it’s not just physical safety that’s at stake.

“In an era where hackers are no longer teenagers in basements but are nation states and hostile governments, the fact we’re building these services on Azure gives our customers unparalleled security,” Richards says. “No matter how diligent they are in securing their networks, they’re probably not spending the billion dollars a year that Microsoft does on security, so we’re making the nation’s water and energy infrastructure more secure. That’s powerful.”

Utilities also will be able to better manage the resources they provide.

Globally, water providers can lose an average of 30 percent of their purified water to aging infrastructure and theft. Now they can get a better idea of where the leaks are and begin to stem the flow of their precious commodity even faster. Electric utilities can, with their customers’ permission, turn down air conditioning units in certain neighborhoods for a few hours when system strain on hot days looks likely to lead to blackouts.

A solar IoT project by Itron will conserve energy by decentralizing the power grid, localizing the supply-and-demand exchange from solar panels. A resident with rooftop solar panels can sell unused electricity to a neighbor, for example, or a weekday business can sell it to the surrounding residences on weekends, without being forced to send the extra power back to the general grid.

“Essentially, you lose power the farther it’s transmitted,” Richards says. “The closer you can put generation to a customer, the more efficient it is.”

Itron’s technology can also help power companies predict a rise in the number of electric cars in a certain neighborhood, so they can prepare for the corresponding demand on the grid as the vehicles recharge overnight. And it can help utilities analyze changes in how households are using power and water to warn them when appliances begin to fail.

And ultimately, better management of energy and water via the cloud should help out everyone’s budgets.

“In the past, the utilities would have to build all this capability and technology on their own and then staff up to be able to do all that and pass along the costs to users, but now we’re going to provide it all as a service and help utilities reduce their costs,” Richards says. “Everything we do through conservation and understanding better utilization should result in greater reliability and lower energy and water costs for consumers.”

Photo courtesy of Itron.