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Enhancing Power Distribution Reliability using Sensors

By Scott Self, CIO, Tennessee Valley Authority

Scott Self, CIO, Tennessee Valley Authority

1. Scott, what are some of the challenges faced by the energy sector today that technology has proved to be adept at solving?

The energy sector is facing several challenges, specifically around reduced per capita consumption and the introduction of more distributed/renewable energy generation. In this changing environment, it is essential that TVA continue to optimize operations so that every generated megawatt of power can be reliably provided to our customers at the lowest feasible cost.

For example, to improve our performance we have actively been using instrumentation on plant and substation equipment to help minimize failures and unexpected outages. TVA’s Monitoring and Diagnostics Center, managed by Power Operations, uses the generated data to predict equipment failures for our nuclear, coal, gas and hydro facilities. Along the way, one challenge that we’ve encountered is that the traditional installation of cable and conduit from the equipment to a data collection device is cost prohibitive. However, with the convergence of ever-increasing computing power, reduction in storage costs, the enhanced capabilities of 3D printing, and the overall maturation of technology, this concern has been recently resolved. Currently, TVA IT is working with plant engineering staff to develop wireless mobile sensor units that can be quickly deployed to monitor adverse conditions of plant equipment. These units will provide engineers with real-time information on any step change that occurs on plant equipment.

I would be amiss if I didn’t also mention the value of stronger partnerships between our IT personnel and field/plant personnel in delivering these kinds of solutions. Those partnerships are critical to IT’s role as a trusted advisor. One specific example of these partnerships involved a conversation between an IT staff member and employee at a nuclear site around how to get wireless access in their emergency response vehicle. That engagement resulted in an innovative solution to not only equip the vehicle with wireless sensors but to enable the data collected to be streamed to an analyst in real-time. Engaging individuals who were deeply interested in knowing ‘why’ something was needed, served as a catalyst for a step-change solution versus providing an only incremental improvement."

It’s our job to ensure that sensor information can be delivered and analyzed in real-time to provide insights that improve decision-making and lead to timely action"

2. The whole energy sector is at the cusp of a technological revolution with the concept of the “Sensor” at the front and center of this upheaval. Kindly share your personal insights on the same.

More sensors throughout our power and transmission systems will inevitably be coming online. This is not being done for the sake of technology, rather it will make the power delivered to your house and mine more reliable and increase efficiencies in maintaining the overall power system. These sensors need to be easily configured, extremely secure, and relatively inexpensive to purchase and maintain. It’s our job as IT professionals to ensure that sensor information can be delivered and analyzed in real-time to provide insights that improve decision-making and lead to timely action.

3. The Sensor Solution encompasses a wide range of technological trends that are relevant to the opportunities in energy sector (Analytics, Big Data, IoT, Cloud computing, etc.) What are some of the technological, as well as behavioral trends you see really shaping the Smart Meter or Sensor Technology landscape today?

One example is cloud-based subscription services, which offer great flexibility while you are experimenting with new technologies, learning about customer needs and developing a ‘minimally viable product’. For organizations to successfully transition from traditional on-premise solutions to more of a hybrid, IT needs to ensure that its staff has opportunities to work with these cloud-based services to understand and become familiar with their capabilities and limitations.

4. The shift from mainframe legacy systems to cloud based storage and computing is pressurizing utility companies today. As a CIO, what would be your approach to this? What are the steps in adopting the fast growing technology to build a platform that can power and monitor the “Sensor Solution/Smart Grid”?

I believe Jack Welch said it best, “An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” Our focus is building a learning organization that creates organizational flexibility which is needed in an industry that is undergoing disruption. Invest in your people and they will always deliver.

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