iOT utilities

Tailoring IoT architecture for power utilities 

Earlier, all utilities recorded little to no behind-the-meter data, but due to the deployment of IoT, huge volumes of data can be observed. With IoT making its way into all areas of power transmission and distribution, the need for a high-performing IoT architecture was inevitable. However, as stated by Roy Pratt, chief architect and technology strategist at BRIDGE Energy Group in an interview, It is of the utmost importance that utilities take a disciplined, architectural approach to do IoT. By architectural approach, he means that there should be some sort of structure in architecture frameworks like The Open Group Architecture Framework (TOGAF) and the Department of Defense Architecture Framework (DoDAF). 

An ideal IoT architecture for power utilities is most likely to be tailored because there are too many elements in a grid to account for and it’s tough to create a one-size-fits-all framework. We’ll see how utilities can find the right framework for them, but first, here’s more about IoT architecture.

What is IoT architecture? 

Internet of Things architecture can be defined as a collective system that comprises multiple elements like line sensors, meters, actuators, layers, Internet gateways, and cloud services. Then it categorizes different elements in different layers to help administrators take managerial decisions by analyzing the system’s consistency and reports. It is estimated that organizations with IoT architecture have a 34 percent greater chance of generating new revenue. Although IoT architectures come in different shapes and sizes, most consist of layers like a three-layer and five-layer architecture.

What is a three-layer architecture?

It is the simplest architecture with three layers, which primarily involve the perception layer, the network layer, and the application layer. The perception layer is the physical layer that involves all the sensors and actuators to collect data from. The network layer is where all the networking is performed. It means all the processing and transmitting of data is performed and devices or servers are connected to other smart things. Lastly, the application layer delivers application services to the user. For example, IoT is used in smart homes and grids. 

The five-layer architecture works similarly, but is more in-depth and sophisticated due to more layers, namely, the perception layer, transport layer, processing layer, application layer, and business layer. 

Why do utilities need a high-performance IoT architecture?

One of the biggest challenges with IoT deployment is orchestration and fragmentation. Since the number of devices deployed is often so many and of diverse nature, connecting and managing all of them is a challenge. This is where an IoT architecture comes into play. It is often referred to as the brain of the framework as it provides centralized control. It harnesses all the elements like hardware, software, and systems and integrates them into one single framework to maximize control, reliability, and cost-effectivity. 

This helps utilities leverage the interconnectivity of IoT devices and create one single node that can monitor, control, and improve all the functions.

What utilities need to look for in a framework? 

While opting for a framework or designing one, the following parameters should be checked. 

1. Can be deployed on the grid or in the cloud 

2. Responsive user interface 

3. Smart edge processing 

4. Provides actionable insights and analytics 

5. Integrates with the utility’s existing application

6. Sophisticated and future-proof

One major challenge in IoT deployment is security due to its vulnerability to cyber and other attacks. So it’s a must that the framework is secure and detects any attacks or interference as soon as possible. In essence, utilities need to look for a framework that allows IoT devices to freely communicate with each other without having to go through a central device. The architecture aims to shorten the gap between devices, so the maximum amount of data can be relieved, which would otherwise go to the utility for decision making.

A use-case of IoT architecture: Microgrids 

A microgrid is a localized grid that generates its own electricity from sources like solar panels and can work both independently and together with the central grid. It typically has batteries to store power, so a constant supply of electricity can be maintained during a power outage in the central grid. Here, the smooth working of a microgrid involves monitoring power sources, batteries, energy demand, and supply from the traditional grid. Continuous monitoring of all these elements by a suitable technician is practically unachievable, so a real-time, cloud-based automated system/architecture to manage everything makes perfect sense. Such an automated system is capable of detecting situations that could compromise the efficient working of the microgrid, and it can send alerts to concerned technicians, who can then analyze the situation remotely. And if needed, an engineer can be sent to resolve the issue. Moreover, the power demand has to be monitored in real-time to provide reliable electricity to users as the generation deficit is not unimaginable. Hence, a real-time automated system is essential for functioning. 

Now, connecting all the sensors and operational technology (OT) devices obviously require some sort of network, which can be another element to take care of. Here’s what utilities need to know about IoT networks.

What is an IoT network? 

In essence, an IoT network is the communication technology that connects IoT devices with each other for the free flow of information within reachable distance. A utility has to be careful while choosing the network as real-time data is of high importance to them. There are primarily four types of IoT networks: 

1. Cellular: These are the established networks of the mobile industry, which offer fast and reliable communication with the ability to support video and audio call applications. Although these have some specific use-cases in IoT, they are not viable for utilities due to their high operational costs and power requirements. More importantly, cellular networks are often not available in the areas where IoT devices are routinely deployed by utilities. 

2. Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN): LPWANs are one of the best networks for IoT. Because, unlike cellular networks, they consume less power with their batteries lasting for years. These are commonly used in large-scale IoT networks that expand on vast industrial areas. For utilities, LPWANs can provide applications like asset tracking, vegetation monitoring, etc. A long-Range wireless area network (LoRaWAN) is a good example of a network used in IoT. However, on the downside, LPWANs only send small blocks of data at low speeds, so they aren’t suitable for a process that needs high bandwidth and real-time data. 

3. Zigbee and other Mesh protocols: These are very short-range, low power networks deployed in a mesh topology to increase coverage by distributing sensor data over many sensor nodes. Zigbee offers higher data rates compared to LPWANs but is less power-efficient. However, due to their short range, Mesh protocols are excellent in medium-range IoT with repeaters installed in closed proximity. Plus, due to their ease of installment, they are a popular choice for IoT inside campuses or buildings. 

4. Local and Personal area networks: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are popular examples of this category. Wi-Fi provides excellent data rates in short-range environments like homes but struggles with scalability, power efficiency, and coverage. So Wi-Fi can be used for IoT applications that run close to an access point. Whereas Bluetooth works with low data rates and is limited by the amount of data it can send.

Final Words

To make the energy grid smarter, reliable, and environment-friendly, Utilities are keenly looking towards IoT. However, as Roy Pratt from Bridge energy group said, utilities have to recognize the uniqueness of the Internet of Things, so they can take an architectural approach to build a framework. Going for an existing architecture or tailoring one for themselves, depends on the utility, but the framework has to go from proof of concept to handling enterprise-level loads seamlessly. It is a key success indicator when the framework integrates with existing applications and offers required services like edge processing and real-time monitoring. 

With the popularity of microgrids, consumers are leveraging distributed energy resources (DERs) to become energy producers. So, power utilities have to catch up in terms of IoT architecture to monitor energy demand and supply in real-time and leverage insights generated from consumers.

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