Weekly Update

Power generation: The challenge of industrial IoT

Last week I wrote about the challenges in industrial IoT in terms of dealing with many different connectivity points from different hardware manufacturers, the need for standards, and the reality of longer product cycles in the industrial space. These are, I believe, surmountable obstacles.

But one way to understand these obstacles is to understood how IoT is being applied in various industrial sectors so that making the investment in adding connectivity, analytics and new standards makes sense for a given sector.

So with that in mind, let’s dip into two industrial use cases, courtesy of the AVnu Alliance, which is actively working with companies like GE, National Instruments and Cisco to establish standards for industrial IoT in order to create interoperable ecosystems. Both of these cases highlight some of the challenges of implementing widespread connectivity in industry and point to the need for standards. This week I’ll take a look at power generation, an area I’ve been looking at for many years as the cleantech curator here. Next week I’ll tackle a very complex area in industrial IoT, but one that points to the potential of IoT in manufacturing–semiconductor fabrication.

Power plants include a number of different systems along with significant security risks associated with so many levels to a system. For example, power plants include control and protection systems that can include multiple network levels. There can be a network level for machine maintenance and diagnostics, another one for business operations/back office and another for control of turbines and generators.

Typically today’s plants are combined cycle, meaning that gas turbines capture energy and then steam turbines recover the heat that is lost thermally from gas turbines. In some cases power plant processes are linked to refineries or desalination plants for further efficiencies, creating ever more layers of process and network complexity.

The problem is that this complexity is growing as more applications are being added and as new cloud based services come online. One can look to the growth of smart grid analytics to see how power generation is accessing more and more cloud based software services. For example the systems coming out of companies like C3 Energy include access data from systems ranging from billing to smart meter infrastructure to building systems to CRM systems for customer management. And that’s before one even starts to manage the operational systems themselves.

Scalability can become a problem. As can concerns about security related to multiple levels of access points to a network. Yet, going forward it’s becoming clear that utilities are making these IT investments which rely on connecting data from more and more grid assets. And similar to what we see in other industries like oil and gas, fewer maintenance engineers are on hand, leading to more automation of equipment maintenance. That adds up to an even greater need for interoperability.

So what’s needed? Information must move under guaranteed latency to ensure coordinated actions in a power plant system. They must also be resilient and flexible to adapt to new configurations at a plant as new applications come on line as well as new infrastructure. Finally security must be maintained across multiple networks at mission critical facilities like power plants.

Standards and certification have an obvious role to play in power generation. In much the way that the WiFi alliance helped create consistent interoperability through its testing and certification, AVnu is working on standards for industrial Ethernet applications.

Ideally the end result would be a world in which applications can converge seamlessly on a network with low latency, security, bandwidth guarantees and standards that allow machines from a diversity of manufacturers to play well with each other. I believe we’ll get to this endpoint but the first step is to settle on standards so that equipment manufacturers can begin building with interoperability in mind. One step at a time.