Utility companies reverse a popular business equation: they innovate so they can keep the lights on.
Given the scarcity of some forms of energy and the unpredictable nature of others, it’s natural that companies involved in the provision of electricity are highly invested in research and development. People in North America don’t often suffer outages, thanks to skilled operators using some of the most sophisticated analytics and control systems in the world.
Especially here in Canada, according to IBM. Hydro-Quebec is one of the most research-driven power companies in the world, in fact. And it was one of the three first companies to sign up to IBM’s new Smarter Energy Research Institute, founded to make electrical grids even smarter, reducing the occurrences of outages and, ultimately, developing better ways to harness renewable forms of energy like solar and wind.
Through a combination of high-performance hardware, automation software and improved mathematical algorithms, the company is aiming to optimize each link of the electrical grid.
Ron Ambrosio, global research executive for energy and utilities at IBM, said that analytics and optimization have been the pillars of IBM’s strategy for serving the utilities market over more than a decade. Now, he said, the company is trying to help utility companies optimize their systems “at a larger scale and in more dimensions.”
The problems these companies face are numerous and require different strategies, he added. For predictive modeling of wind patterns, for example, IBM’s high-performance Power Systems line of servers could be useful, or even its powerhouse Blue Gene supercomputer, which some clients are already using.
But Ambrosio says that this kind of computer modeling isn’t necessarily going to take place inside the walls of a data centre.
“We think it’s very important for us to have a more hybrid approach, where part of the problem absolutely has to be handled in the data centre with high-performance computing, with clusters, with PowerPC, P-series systems, with Blue Genes dealing with some parts of the problem, perhaps.
“And then other parts may need to be out in the grid infrastructure, because you may want to have a much faster reaction to something.”
In the future, he explained, we may begin to see higher performance equipment in power substations, on the feeder lines and even in customer devices. New equipment could handle “local” analytics, passing on the data on to substations or to home-area networks.
IBM hopes not only to increase the flow and quality of data, but also to develop automation software that will use the advanced intelligence derived from it to reduce human error. As it stands, the utility industry still depends to a large extent on operators’ decisions, Ambrosio said.
There are problems with relying on human responses, particularly when it comes to the “intermittency and variability” of wind energy, he added. Capturing wind energy and storing it is a major technological challenge on its own, and there could be windows of less than five minutes to take advantage of the unpredictable power generation.
Charles Newton, president of the Maryland-based Newton-Evans Research Company
, compares power company control centres to air traffic control towers: operators need to be extensively trained and quick to react to many different contingencies.
One way to address this “wide- area situational awareness” might be the software under development at the IBM Smarter Energy Institute, he said. He uses the greater Toronto area as an example:
“It’s a technology that’s being developed to give operators better visual tools with which they can immediately respond to some flashing change on their screen, or audible sounds—something that will give them a better view of something that’s happening at a substation in Yorkville: how is that going to affect Markham?”
As far as renewable energy is concerned, the Institute will certainly have an easier time once the engineering challenges inherent in storing generated power are conquered, something outside of IBM’s expertise, Newton added.
“The world needs to understand how to implement these renewable sources and get them onto the grid safely and as needed.”
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