Energy production is diversifying rapidly, with solar, wind, wave, hydropower, marine, and biomass adding to more traditional methods. Renewable energy today generates about 30% of all electricity, according to several agencies that track power generation worldwide. Power generators are looking at new technologies to help incorporate renewable energy into their portfolios, and to integrate solar, wind, and more into the transmission grid—particularly as the grid also is transforming thanks to smart grid technology.

Ovarro, a global technology company based in the UK and with offices in Canada, Australia, France, Belgium, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates, is leading research into how remote telemetry units (RTUs) can help energy companies move closer to the “utopia” of smart grids. That involves finding solutions to issues that arise from the diversification of the energy sector, a situation that creates both opportunities and challenges. This diversification is helping prevent disruption of supply and maintaining security, giving the network additional resilience as well as creating new investment platforms, particularly support for smaller renewable projects.

Capturing Data

Thanks to the diversification of energy production resources, utility operators must manage a much wider portfolio of assets smarter and more efficiently. This is only possible through capturing, storing, and interpreting huge quantities of data from physical assets. RTUs are the technology capable of achieving this—one of the reasons they are now a critical part of many power generation and distribution operating systems.

Put simply, RTUs transform vast amounts of data into useful management information, while also being able to act autonomously to keep equipment working correctly. As power plants often are required to inform the grid operator in real time about the electricity they’re generating, operators need to know the measures of active and reactive power, phase voltage, and connection status of switches, among other things—all issues that can be supported by telemetry, with data going to control centers, and adjustments of power generation based on the requirements of the grid operator.

The digitization of the energy sector is growing rapidly, especially the use of RTUs. In the past, maintenance engineers didn’t have visibility of asset conditions within the grid. Therefore, they had to adopt a reactive—rather than proactive—approach, as the technology didn’t exist to inform them which asset required attention and when. However, deployment of RTU systems is changing this, creating smart grids that help utility firms optimize service to customers.

The scale of the challenge facing the power generation industry is intimidating. By 2040, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts annual global electricity consumption will be 70% higher than in 2015, in part due to the continued electrification of many sectors, including transportation. Electricity demand also is expected to increase as more of the world gains access to power. This huge increase poses a serious question: How can nearly twice as much electricity be supplied from a more fragmented generation landscape to a more demanding, urbanized consumer, away from the physically remote points of generation?

Simultaneously, penalties for outages are growing. Recently, Britain’s energy regulator fined three electricity suppliers a total of £10.5 million ($14.5 million) for a power outage in August 2019, which affected one million customers and caused transport chaos.

Around the globe, customer demand, tighter regulation, and renewable methods of energy generation are rising. According to the IEA, China is the undisputed growth leader in renewables and will account for more than 40% of the total global clean energy mix by 2022. In India, renewable capacity is expected to more than double during the same time.

With such a diverse range of assets covering generation, distribution, and consumption, technology is the only way of creating a smart grid. In particular, RTUs are critical, even though just a small component of this network, as they capture data from a wide range of assets and convert it into effective management information.

Asset Diversification

A diverse range of power generation types within the grid creates challenges. Assets such as wind turbines (Figure 1) and solar cells are often located in harsh, remote environments. Maintaining continuity of supply from the point of generation to the consumer becomes harder as a result, requiring the careful and permanent monitoring of equipment. To make matters even more difficult, these remote locations often receive only satellite or sparse Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) radio signals.

1. Power generators know the importance of communicating with their equipment, particularly systems located in remote areas, far from the control room. Remote telemetry units enable the needed data gathering and communication with field operations. Courtesy: Ovarro

However, help is at hand. Recent advances make it possible for each RTU to act autonomously or communicate by radio with a telemetry data gateway connected to a cloud computing infrastructure equipped with appropriate software capable of presenting processed information to management. Reliable low-band telemetry can collect data from most assets in the energy sector, where it acts as a canary in the coal mine, predicting, diagnosing, and communicating outage events.

A key advantage of RTUs is that they perform autonomous control in real time and then report to SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems that everything is under control. At the SCADA interface, operators can then supervise operations by setting new known performance indicators or updating instructions—open/close this, start/stop that, for example—for RTUs to then act upon on location.

The data fed to control centers can include measures of active and reactive power, and the phase voltage and connection status of switches. Systems also can monitor utility meters. Solutions can help adjust the power generated, and monitor power generation facilities.

RTUs Fit Well for Power Sector

This data-gathering and equipment monitoring capability makes RTUs an ideal fit for the energy industry. RTUs are resilient, and capable of withstanding harsh site environments. They can also operate with minimal use of local power, while still retaining the necessary processing power to autonomously perform control algorithms. As an example, Ovarro’s TBox LT2 RTU model (Figure 2) opens up new automation possibilities, simplifying systems engineering and enabling critical industries—including power generation—across the globe to remotely control and monitor their applications.

2. The TBox LT2 remote telemetry unit (RTU) is an example of an internet-ready RTU for automation and monitoring applications. It offers functionality from a single compact unit. Courtesy: Ovarro

The TBox allows users to access networks with their mobile devices and personal computers, at any time and from anywhere. These devices and connected assets are protected by a state-of-the-art cybersecurity suite that includes authentication, encryption, firewall, and other security protocols.

In spite of all the benefits of RTUs, some utility companies still use outdated or first-generation telemetry systems that just aren’t up to the task. In contrast, the latest RTUs are designed to overcome the specific challenges of the modern energy and power industry. The message is: you may have used telemetry before, but the latest RTUs are a world away from first-generation units.

Data Surges

For a successful low-carbon future and a reduced number of outages, smart power grids are vital. That means RTUs (Figure 3) will continue to play a prominent role in making sure assets between the point of generation and the consumer operate efficiently. The time has passed when there were a handful of large power generation plants with a fairly straightforward grid supply through to the consumer. The future is one of digitized and fragmented distribution systems, more responsive to consumer and producer needs.

3. The TBox RM2 is a compact, remote input/output (I/O) expansion module for use with the TBox LT2. It allows for additional functionality for power generators as they monitor their equipment. Courtesy: Ovarro

It’s worth emphasizing the financial benefit of RTU systems; it’s easy to quantify and understand the cost of preventing outages. Distribution automation is another advantage, because it allows assets to be controlled autonomously while avoiding having to place personnel in remote, hostile environments. That means telemetry projects have a rapid return on investment, making them self-funding in the short term.Due to the growth in both traditional and renewable sectors to accommodate the 70% increase in demand for electricity by 2040, data will surge exponentially. Successful utilities and power generators will be those that can collect, store, analyze, trend, and then act on this data, with the ability to make real-time decisions about the condition of grid assets.

Put simply, RTUs allow utility operators to react quickly when issues occur—in many cases, without having to send an engineer into the field because the RTU makes autonomous decisions, within agreed parameters. To cope with greater diversification of assets, increased competition, and ever more stringent demands from consumers, utility companies will need this kind of approach.

One of the greatest challenges over the next decades will be decentralization, moving electricity generation from a few large hubs to a distributed network. RTUs will help make this possible by creating millions of new intelligent grid assets.

Matthew Hawkridge is chief technology officer at Ovarro, a remote monitoring technology provider formerly known as Servelec Technologies and Primayer. Ovarro’s technology is used throughout the world to monitor, control, and manage critical and national infrastructure.