Data Analytics Solutions – Killer Apps for the Smart Grid

Silicon Valley is always chasing the next killer app, and it’s an activity that is very relevant to the Smart Grid.  What are the killer apps?  It depends on your perspective.  In some cases, the answer will be a technology breakthrough in materials science rather than an innovation in software or communications – which will be the case for energy storage or solar power.  The software killer apps for Smart Grid operations at both utility and regional grid levels will be found in data analytics solutions. 

Sensing and communications technologies that help make the Smart Grid smart create massive volumes of data from thousands to millions of devices that range from meters to transformers, substations to transmission lines, and generation plants.  This data can give utilities new information to revolutionize their operations and improve grid reliability, stability, and efficiency while reducing costs.  But the new data could strain existing capacities of utilities to manage it – particularly in terms of resources and experiential knowledge.  To realize the full benefits of the Smart Grid, we will need data analytics solutions to help utilities deal with the daily deluges of data. 

Data analytics solutions are already in play in one part of the electrical grid.  The electrical grid is a supply chain that consists of generation, transmission, distribution, and consumption.  The transmission grid, which transports bulk power (electricity above 69kV), has been transforming into a smarter grid through remote wireless sensors and control devices that monitor line conditions and high-speed communications networks that transmit this data.  This Wide Area Situational Awareness (WASA) will help avoid future blackouts like the one that impacted the Northeast USA and Canada in August 2003, at a cost of billions of dollars to the two economies.   The US government decided that a little government investment to prevent future blackouts and economic disasters is a good thing, and encouraged and funded the North American SynchroPhasor Initiative (NASPI) to address it.  This project advances the deployment of technology and sharing information and experiences to enhance knowledge.  The remote sensors and control units are called phasor measurement units (PMUs) and take measurements at 30 times per second.  In contrast, the technology PMUs replace only took measurements once every 4 seconds.  Measurements are time-stamped to a common time reference to deliver a very accurate and comprehensive view of the transmission system. 

This synchrophasor data helps utilities, Independent System Operators (ISOs), Regional Transmission Operators (RTOs), power generators and transmission companies identify stresses to the grid and take actions that ensure continued operations.  The challenges for the operations centers are twofold – first to focus on finding the exceptional data that could signal a pending or imminent failure.  It’s the equivalent of going from reading an x-ray to reading an MRI – there’s a lot more to look at, but you still have to understand what you are looking at.  Second, since this data hasn’t existed before, NASPI participants are in the interesting role of discovery – identifying new applications that leverage real-time and historical data. 

Data analytics solutions are the critical linchpins to make sense of all this data.  Data analysis automates sifting through vast amounts of synchrophasor samplings to perform real-time alerts for immediate actions to ensure grid reliability.  Data analysis also creates “baselines” using historical data to detect trends or patterns that will help grid operators identify pending failures and take corrective actions.  Beyond these applications, analytics also aid in power system planning and modeling to integrate both traditional and intermittent renewable sources of generation into the grid and in the forensic analysis of failures.   

The initial analytics results are encouraging, and the fact that there is a coordinated effort led by NASPI expedites the learning process for participants to successfully transform new data into meaningful information.  The transmission part of the electrical grid is well on its way to fulfilling the promise of the Smart Grid using communications technology and intelligent devices to improve grid reliability and stability.  The distribution and consumption links in the electrical supply chain face different operational challenges, with implications for the rollout of data analytics killer apps.  Those distinctions are explored in next week’s blog.