For electric utilities, these are disruptive times. The ongoing shift to sustainable energy sources creates a whole new level of grid complexity. Alternative power sources are intermittent and decentralized, all the way down to the solar rooftops of homes and businesses that feed power onto the grid, creating new grid management challenges for utilities. All the while, the shift to renewable energy is accelerating — renewables now account for a third of global energy capacity.
With the rapid shift to renewable energy and the transition to a grid where energy flows in two directions, utilities are facing added challenges brought by legacy infrastructure and aging electric grid systems. Moreover, given that utilities are considered critical infrastructure, they face a growing range of cyber and physical security threats, along with ever-more stringent regulatory and compliance requirements.
Given the scope of the challenges facing the industry, the need for grid modernization has become urgent. To meet their goals for reliability, affordability and sustainability in these dynamic times, utilities must modernize the grid to capitalize on new and emerging technologies. These technologies include Edge computing and Internet of Things (IoT) solutions that turn operational data into actionable intelligence.
Use case examples
Electric utilities with a modernized grid can leverage Edge computing solutions to process, analyze and gain insights from a constant stream of data from connected devices. These insights enable utilities to manage and monitor the broad range of their operations at a much higher level of granularity than in the past, clearing a path to new data-driven use cases.
With the capabilities of Edge and IoT solutions, utilities can monitor data from equipment to improve predictive maintenance, avoid disruptive outages, and reduce costly customer and regulatory penalties. The payback for this predictive maintenance is significant. An analysis by Deloitte found that a data-driven approach can potentially reduce annual utility downtime by 70 percent and can also potentially bring unplanned costs down to 22 percent of total expenditures, compared to 50 percent currently.
Grid operations are built around legacy hardware architectures from the past. Seventy percent of the grid’s transmission lines and power transformers are over 25 years old, and the average age of power plants is over 30 years old. Parts of the U.S. grid network are more than a century old. The realities of today’s aging infrastructure increase the need for more frequent remote inspection capabilities that leverage computer vision cameras with built-in artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.
With computer vision solutions, electric providers can remotely inspect systems, facilities and the grid through fixed, drone, and aerial cameras. For example, in the area of vegetation management, drone analytics platforms can monitor vegetation overgrowth and encroachment around power lines, to help operators take action to reduce the possibility of outages or wildfires. In addition, with intelligent Edge solutions, utilities can simultaneously run algorithms to analyze and score the condition of inspected assets, prioritizing areas that need immediate attention.
Supply and demand forecasting
The total power capacity of renewables is projected to grow by 50 percent between 2019 and 2024.⁴ This influx of energy from intermittent power sources increases the need for Edge and IoT solutions that give operators the real-time insights they need to balance supply and demand. Streaming analytics at the Edge helps utilities monitor electricity generation and consumption, manage peak demand more effectively, and take immediate action when needed.
Safety and security
Thermal vision cameras — fixed or attached to drones — can monitor transmission and distribution lines, substation equipment and other assets to identify temperature variances which could indicate operational anomalies, safety concerns, and security threats. With analytics at the Edge, connected devices make faster decisions to trigger hazard alerts notifying grid operators to take actions, such as identifying risks during compulsory fire watch procedures at nuclear power plants or identifying equipment hot spots at power generation facilities.
Similarly, cyber security at the Edge can protect against malicious cyberattacks, which are growing more frequent and severe — industry researchers have identified 155 attack groups that are currently targeting the energy sector.⁵ Edge security is critical in reducing the risk of unauthorized activity on the network.
Modern grid platforms
Grid modernization calls for the use of rugged, industry-standard servers on the Edge and standard platforms at the core data center. Critical to this OT / IT convergence is having a single, standard software defined platform that simplifies and eliminates complexities.
The global demand for renewable energy requires new and innovative technology. In a time of rapid industry transformation, grid modernization is the next step for electric utilities. Leveraging the latest Edge computing and IoT solutions, combined with a modern architecture, enables utilities to gain valuable, actionable insights from operational data helping utilities to achieve their mission of delivering reliability, affordability and sustainability.
To learn more
For a closer look at the topics explored in this blog, see the Dell Technologies white paper “Utilities at the Edge” and the Dell Technologies on-demand webinar “Powering a Modern Platform for Utilities.”
Russell Boyer is the Dell Technologies energy field director focused on Global Utilities Industry Edge and IoT solutions.
 IRENA, International Renewable Energy Agency, “Renewable Energy Now Accounts for a Third of Global Power Capacity,” April 2019.
 Deloitte report from Dell Technologies Energy Vertical Experience and Vision Presentation.
 U.S. Department of Energy, “Understanding the Grid,” November 17, 2014.
⁴ IEA Renewables 2019, Market analysis and forecast from 2019 to 2024, October, 2019
⁵ The World Energy Council, “Cyber challenges to the energy transition,” 2019.