Video: Software to light up the dark grid

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IBM's Neill Roberts explains how analytics lifts a utility's IQ.

Utilities will soon have the power to see what gas, electricity and water you use almost as you flick the switch or turn the spigot but are yet to come to grips with how to manage that firehose of information, says IBM's energy industry expert.

Neill Roberts is one of those in the IT industry advising gas, power and water companies on how to manage the welter of data that will soon flood into their data centres, to draw inferences and spot trends as they occur using analytics and visualisation software.

He was visiting Australia this week to talk to utilities providers in Sydney and Melbourne.

For instance, the meter on your premises wall may be checked less than once a year but the new meters might return almost real-time updates, potentially nearly 250,000 data points a year. How utilities and their customers manage that data will impact their profitability and competitiveness. Utilities also have the ability to share that data with other businesses and governments to help them plan for demand.

Over the next decade, Australia's utility companies will spend about $10 billion installing smart systems on their networks to better deliver services and respond to outages.

"[We] look at the energy space and say we have smart meters coming through, we have these new sensors and instrumentation in what was previously a very dark grid environment is now becoming illuminate with sensors but sensors and meters alone do not make a smart grid," Roberts says.

"They buy you your first problem, which is this tsunami of data, which comes over the horizon when you turn all these things on."

Check the video below to discover how utilities companies should proceed to make the grid smart.

Roberts says that everyone who connects to a utilities grid has a stake in the collection, analysis and dissemination of data that smart grids produce.

"You have [governments] interested in the performance of the grid," he says.

"You have the customer at the other end who not only wants a bill about their energy, they want to understand when they're burning their energy, how much that's costing them and to be able to see if they replace all my standard light bulbs with these energy saving ones, does that value drop?"

Roberts explains in the next video how analytics software informs peer-group pressure that may drive down excess consumption and how photovoltaics factor into energy creation in the future. And he gives the example of an energy-conscious researcher using Twitter to cut costs.

"This data is not going to stop at the meter or the billing system, it's going to be made available through probably as many devices as people can imagine. The visualisation concept for energy is almost limitless."

Roberts says who owns the data is one of the debates being held in the smart grid industry. Industries such as telecommunications and retail offer conceptual leaping-off points for how smart utility meters should be perceived, he says.

"The meter is like the point-of-sale terminal so the data it gathers in relation to the volumes flowing through it are passed around the industry for billing purposes, they need to be made available to the customer so they can see what they're burning, when they're burning so they can be more efficient.

"Who has the right to control and to collect and store that data which is the property of the householder or the business at the premises?"

In the video below, find out what your power, water or gas company will soon know about you once smart meters are the norm across Australia and what it will cost you.

With so much data comes the risk that it will be misused or fall into the wrong hands. Utilities have always put a high value on physical security but the shift to networks enabled with sensors connected using the lingua franca of the internet heighten risks associated with protecting that information.

"Techniques that we use for securing banking systems and ATMs will be applied to ensure the smart grid remains secure and reliable," he says.

Roberts says movie-of-the-week disaster stories about cyber-attacks on such systems are overblown. Building intelligence into the network will make it more resilient to attack, he says.

"What the smart grid enables is a faster response to restoration of power so that in cases where in the past they may be weeks without power, we may through automated switching do that in hours or minutes," he says.

And the IT industry is powering up to provide the heavy lifting in terms of backhaul communications, server farms and data centres to support the smart grid, Roberts says.

"There are a number of new data centres being built around the world, which will host energy companies' data and will act as business continuity sites," Roberts says. "Maintaining grid reliability means you have to maintain the IT asset's availability."

IBM has turned its IT skills into an almost god-like ability to forecast the weather. Find out how project "Deep Thunder" helps energy companies manage renewable energy generation over small geographic areas.


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