How Big Data Is Helping to Keep the Lights On

How Big Data Is Helping to Keep the Lights On

By Barbara Fletcher


Because smarter power means less time in the dark.

By Barbara Fletcher

OZY and Predix from GE — the cloud-based development platform built for industry — have partnered to bring you an inside look at the future of digital industries, where people, data and productivity meet.

In County Cork, Ireland — and many other places in the world — keeping the lights on is a No. 1 priority. One of the plants shouldering that responsibility is the 445-megawatt Whitegate power plant, owned by Bord Gáis Energy, which produces 10 percent of the county’s power. But there’s more to it than meeting demand for power; the plant also needs to meet national regulations for greater renewable energy capacity. How do they keep both in check? With 141 tiny sensors throughout the plant, synced to an asset performance management solution. Together they monitor equipment and churn out comprehensive report cards on the plant’s performance. The result: Machines can be fixed before they fail, and grid outages are halted before they even begin. And, of course, the lights around County Cork continue to glow. 

Around the world, utility companies, engineers and even homeowners are increasingly looking to sensors, smart grid technologies and the convergence of big data to uncover innovative new ways to avoid costly — and sometimes dangerous — power outages. Consider this:

Last year in the U.S., some 3,500 power outages impacted a whopping 13.2 million people, according to Eaton’s Blackout Tracker Annual Report.

The most unreliable power grid in the U.S. (for seven years running) is California, followed by Texas and New York. Meanwhile, the average cost to the U.S. economy just from weather-related outages falls between $18 billion to $33 billion a year, according to the report Economic Benefits of Increasing Electrical Grid Resilience to Weather Outages

As a result, utility companies are using big data to strike back. To better meet demand, they’re using real-time and historical weather data to predict temperature spikes while also factoring in real-time data about utility production. Consumers are helping too. With the integration of smart meters, smart thermometers and other smart devices, some residents are allowing utility companies to remotely control devices in their home. For example, during peak usage, the hydro company might raise air-conditioning temperatures by a few set degrees to help offset demand. This is just the beginning for remote capabilities, says Doug Bellin, global senior manager of manufacturing and energy at Cisco Systems. On the horizon: swimming pool pumps and washers, dryers and dishwashers. “It’s no longer just about the data,” Bellin says. “It’s about how you can use this information in an automated process to effect change.” 

Like keeping those lights on. In Washington State University’s 1,500-square-foot smart city power grid testbed, researchers are using sensors and remote capabilities to simulate power outages and identify areas in the power grid that are particularly vulnerable. “We’re continually collecting live data through tests to help determine the best ways to improve grid reliability,” says Chen-Ching Liu, director of WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center. And when the lights do go out? Technicians dispatched to assess storm damage are also leveraging new technologies to work more quickly and efficiently. For example, with GE’s Mobile Enterprise Damage Assessment app, which uses a framework called Predix Go, technicians can use GPS and a map on an iPad to identify at-risk utility poles, enter notes and photos and quickly file an inspection report that’s sent back to the office — significantly reducing unplanned downtime. 

Meanwhile, in power plants, software applications like GE’s Asset Performance Management, which runs on the Predix platform, are providing a “single pane of glass” so operations management and staff can monitor operations throughout a plant and across multiple plants. The Asset Performance Management application’s Machine and Equipment solution, for example, provides a visual status across geographical locations, while the Reliability Management solution predicts and diagnoses issues before they can negatively impact assets.

But utility companies certainly have some hoops to jump through on their quest to keep outages at bay. Unexpected events such as hurricanes Hermine and Newton, among other major storms, for example, provide little warning, and the impacts can go beyond site outages to data center outages as well. In addition, some experts say challenges brought on by climate change and rising temperatures can make it harder for plants to avoid outages in the years ahead. “Climate change is one area we’re currently working to address in our research,” WSU’s Liu says. 

Sure, power outages aren’t going away — sometimes we’re still going to find ourselves in the dark. But streamlined operations and heightened productivity across power plants can help reduce these occurrences. And sensors, big data and software applications are lighting a candle for better grid reliability in years to come.

Predix from GE is enabling the adoption of powerful, secure and scalable solutions built for the industrial app economy. It’s industrial-strength strength, powering the future of industry.Get Connected.