Duke Energy is moving to an age of IoT, drones and ‘self-healing’ energy networks. Here the company explains why.
Duke Energy is a US-based sustainable electric and gas company which serves some 7.2 million customers in the Southeast and Midwest of the US.
Based in Charlotte, North Carolina, the 112-year-old firm owns 58,200 megawatts of base-load and peak generation in the United States, which it distributes to its customers, and covers some 104,000 square miles with 250,200 miles of distribution lines. Almost all of Duke Energy’s power generation comes from coal, natural gas, or oil.
This base is huge and yet, like many other energy suppliers, the firm struggles with maintenance and downtime, which can negatively impact customer relationships and revenues. How to optimize energy supply has become a global challenge…and a competitive differentiator.
IoT powers up
Duke Energy has, though, been looking to rectify these issues.
For example, the firm has been using ‘self-healing grid technologies’ to isolate and correct faults with millisecond decision cycles, as well as drones for monitoring hard-to-reach places, such as a 40-foot high transmission line, or a 500-acre solar farm.
Duke Energy is not alone in this technology innovation of course, especially in an electric industry which is considering such ideas as apps which turn smartphones into infrared cameras to find trouble spots on a power line, or Augmented Reality (AR) glasses that let technicians view 3D wiring schematics as they work.
Nonetheless, the firm is somewhat unique; after all, how many CEOs are not only aware of what the Internet of Things is, but also see how these technologies can be used to improve business operations?
Lynn Good, Duke Energy’s chairman, president and CEO, gave an insight into the company and IoT in a blog post back in February of this year.
“At Duke Energy we’re exploring how the Internet of Things and other advancements could make these types of applications possible, and enabling consumers to customize their energy experience in unprecedented ways.” She continued that customers are now craving the “same control and convenience from every service provider.
“The bar has been raised, and the electric industry is no exception.”
With the firm seemingly at the cutting-edge, IoB spoke to Sacha Fontaine, who heads up several of the smart grid projects at the company, to find out more.
Duke Energy and self-healing networks
Fontaine has been a consultant for Duke’s smart grid division since 2010. He explains to Internet of Business how Duke has worked on Advanced Meter Infrastructure (AMI – connecting smart meters, communications networks and data management systems together to enable customers to better manage their energy supply), the use of smart street lighting in certain municipalities, and the deployment of self-healing networks.
Self-healing networks, explains Fontaine, offer value to the business and to the customer because they do what personnel used to do manually.
In the past, an individual would monitor the system but wouldn’t automatically be alerted to a fault on the power line. Manually, they would have to see where to isolate the fault, so that the fewest number of customers are inconvenienced and left in the dark.
Then they would see what alternative sources of power could be used to power everyone else up (not on the fault line).
“It could take an hour. You have to send a crew to locate and isolate the fault, then get the power rerouted, and finally you could send the crew to fix the fault,” explains Fontaine.
“With IoT, we have remotely controllable devices through the grid that immediately alert us to outages.” This, says Fontaine, “takes it out of the hands of the dispatchers and puts it into a centralized system that would make the same decisions the system operator would make, but just a lot faster.”
Through algorithms and machine-learning technologies, these networks can evaluate capacity, choose alternative sources and isolate the smallest section of the network to isolate and repair.
“What used to take about an hour now takes less than 30 seconds, so it’s a great improvement in terms of customer minutes of interruption.”
Smart meters, smarter lighting
Another project Duke Energy has been working on since 2014 has been providing smart lighting to municipalities or cities.
By providing more efficient lighting, using LEDs, lighting last longer and use up to 50 percent less power.
“They don’t tend to burn out,” said Fontaine, adding that outage dropped by around 50 percent. ROI has been achieved in eight years, with Fontaine saying that the added benefit is in knowing exactly which street light is out.
Another IoT project, AMI, was initially rolled out across five states in 2014. This saw Duke, the US biggest utility company, work with Itron, Cisco (using the firm’s iPv6 platform) and other tech firms to deploy smart meters; building blocks which enable distribution automation, distributed generation, and a whole host of distributed intelligence, embedded sensing applications. Pilot projects allowed customers to track time-of-use rates, get peak time rebates and see critical peak pricing.
Customers in these pilot programs used smart thermostats, web portals, and direct load control devices to reduce their electricity consumption and peak demand.
“AMI was a great example; smart meters allowed us to do remote readings of energy usage every 15 minutes instead of every month,” he said, adding that the firm could remotely connect and disconnect service over the mesh network as necessary.
Other technologies are being looked at, but it’s at an exploratory stage. Fontaine urges companies to “try and see beyond immediate benefits of technology”, saying that technology should be the “building block for future benefits to customers and the company” and not “tech for tech’s sake”.
Future of renewable energy
What does the future look like? Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s about renewable energy.
“It’s definitely going to be renewable energy, or what a utility company might call ‘distributed energy resources.
“Integrating that into the existing grid is not as simple as it might seem because of existing infrastructure – we built grid to send power one way from plant to end customer. What’s happened with distributed energy – for example solar – is that now power can flow back into the grid, and this happens without the utility explicitly controlling that power flow. This is a huge change for utilities.
Fontaine says IoT will play a big part here, from evaluating customer connections, analyzing grid and weather conditions. He says sensors give intelligence and can lead energy providers to an age of smart energy and predictive modelling.
The CEO summarizes the future of the company and its approach to innovation: “I often get asked the question, “Are you innovating fast enough?” The answer is more complicated than yes or no. A company can’t chase every new, shiny object. I have to provide reliable energy to 23 million people every day.
“You have to be disciplined and thoughtful about setting priorities and allocating resources. Once you do, run toward your goal – fast.”
Sacha Fontaine, the head of the Utility IoT practice at Theorem Geo Associates – an engineering consulting firm focused the utility industry, has supported several of the largest power suppliers including Duke Energy, Siemens, GE and Hydro-Quebec.