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Sensing opportunity

Ian Mitton, director at HP Utilities Industries, on smart grids.

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Ian Mitton, director, HP Utilities Industries.
Ian Mitton, director, HP Utilities Industries.
A HP accelerometer.
A HP accelerometer.

Smart grids rely on smart software, something that HP, who pride themselves as the world’s largest technology company, with 30-odd years experience in infrastructure and integration services, are well-equipped to provide. Utilities Middle East caught up with Ian Mitton, director at HP Utilities Industries and spoke to him about the latest technologies, their acceptance by the utilities industry, and the market in the Middle East

How do you define the term smart grids?
Term smart grid is a very broad term; it has become almost synonymous with meaning utilities. This causes a lot of confusion with customers. In the purest sense it is the transmission and distribution part, with the end point being the smart meter, and the front end being the generator.

But you could argue that there is a bit more to that and the term smart grid is used to incorporate the generation side, and not only the smart meter at home, but also the smart home and home automation. To me the smart grid is simply the part in the middle.

What are the challenges utilities are faced with?
The operating pressures that utilities are under are threefold. Firstly, there is the issue of security of supply – making sure the lights stay on. Then there is the environment – reducing greenhouse gas emissions, greener fuels, getting into renewables, and also encouraging consumers to use less energy.

Having said that, electricity demand is going to grow, but if we use less, that growth won’t be as severe. Finally, there is customer management – customers satisfaction. This is extremely important for deregulated markets, like we are seeing in the US, Europe and Australia.

Is deregulation going to become increasingly prominent?
I think deregulation in time will hit more markets. Certainly the European Commission is unbundling the business, they’re saying you have to be electricity generators, transmission companies, distribution companies, or retailers, and have those as separate bundles.

That whole area of deregulated markets, you can see how there is a big pressure on customer management there.

What about the Middle East?
In the Middle East de-regulation won’t happen any time soon. Yet as a utility provider in the region, you still want to make sure from customer management point of view that your customer is satisfied, because even though they have only one place to buy their electricity from, if they are kept happy they don’t phone you, and that means you don’t need a very big call centre, which obviously means lower cost.

What does HP offer utilities companies looking to improve their customer management operations?
From an automation management point of view, we’ve seen a great opportunity to leverage our experience in the Telco sector. HP is pretty pervasive in Telco, 80 percent of text messages in the world are touched somewhere by HP software, and all the big carriers use HP software to manage their networks to manage their data.

So what we’ve done is take the software we use for network management, service activation and data management within the Telco sector and applied it to utilities.

How does the software derived from the Telco sector benefit your clients?
The key differentiator HP has is in an area that utilities haven’t really embraced yet, but to which they are becoming more aware as they are rolling out their projects: the scalability issue of managing the network.

As a utility running a grid, you can manage five to 10 kilometres and you can get by because the head end systems on the meter systems give you the alarms and the alerts. You might have a head end system for every two to three kilometres. As you scale up to 100 or 1000 kilometers, you’ve got a storm of alarms coming form that network.

We’ve heard numbers of maybe five percent of all meters and devices are alarming and alerting at any given point. With a million meters, that means that at any given stage 50,000 meters are sending alarm signals.

When you’ve to a storm like that, how do you differentiate? You need very strong networking tools and correlation engines. That’s were we’re finding we’ve got something very unique.

Are utility companies quick to implement this technology?
We are met with the usual utility response – which is slow. The decision-making process for utilities is very long-winded. Our technology is being bought by utilities worldwide, but once these projects start, they take a long time to roll out. Getting the infrastructure in place, to get the integration with the backoffice, that can take the best part of a year.

What is the latest innovation HP is pursuing in the field of smart grids?
Everyone is talking about smart grids, I’d argue in many ways the system is pretty intelligent already. Where they can improve it is in granularity. Here we are developing our CeNSE (Central Nerve System for the Earth) technology. The idea of calling it CeNSE is to mimic the human senses, so you’ve got eyes, ears, nose, touch, and apply that to the grid. We have started a first project using CeNSE in cooperation with Shell.

At the moment a sensor on a grid is a very expensive unit, costing about 2,000 dollars, If you could make a sensor for a few dollars, and pepper them out on the grid, then you’ve got much more granularity. That is what I think is going to be the next stage of the grid.

 

We are talking to utilities in the US, Europe and in Japan about what can we use these sensors for. In Japan, for instance earthquakes are often followed by mudslides, which kill more people than earthquakes. If we put sensors on the wires, we would know when the earth starts to go.

How is your smart business in the Middle East going?
In the Middle East there’s not so much activity at the moment. We’ve been in discussion with a good few of the utilities, but nothings come to fruition yet.

How come?
Is suspect that it has to do with the return on investment. We have found in a good few cases that customers have struggled with that. They’ve thrown a couple of million dollars at a pilot, bought some meters, got some software, and plugged it all together. But this is usually led and driven by the meter department, and they are only looking at automating their current process.

What they haven’t looked at is the holistic approach, the benefits our software can bring to the whole organisation. Our systems can bring down costs for call centres, as utility companies are able to identify a problem with the end user as soon as it occurs.

They can also locate problems on the grid immediately, so that repair teams don’t have to drive up and down the power lines looking for the damage.

The reason why we haven’t been selling our software in the ME is probably for the same reason why many of these pilots have started and stopped, they can’t identify the return on investment.

Making sense
HP and Shell look to deploy new sensory technology in oil and gas exploration

At the International Petroleum Week in February, the two companies announced that they are working to develop a wireless sensing system collecting high resolution data to detect oil and gas reservoirs. Key to this project is HP’s CeNSE programme, which relies in developing tiny sensors, or accelerometers, which can be deployed in vast numbers.

“We have started our first CeNSE project with Shell, putting these accelerometers in the drill bit and putting them on the ground, so that you can triangulate and try and find where the best location for oil is,” explains Ian Mitton, director at HP Utilities Industries.

While the accelerometer gives CeNSE its “feel,” the system’s “taste and smell” are just around the corner, says Peter Hartwell, senior researcher at HP and project team lead. Researchers in the group are using nanomaterials to boost a standard chemical and biological detection technology to 100 million times its usual sensitivity rates.

That could lead to detectors small enough to clip onto a mobile telephone. With a wave over produce, the sensor could, for example, warn consumers of salmonella on spinach leaves or pesticides present in organic produce.

Deploying CeNSE would enable real-time data collection for a range of applications, says HP, such as bridge and infrastructure health monitoring, geophysical mapping, mine exploration and earthquake monitoring.

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