Navigant Research Blog

The Lowly Utility Pole Receives Some IoT Attention

— May 8, 2018

The lowly utility pole is getting some time in the Internet of Things (IoT) spotlight. Ameren and technology vendor Atomation are testing IoT sensors on utility poles at a site in Champaign, Illinois. The main objective is to discover how the pole-mounted sensors could help lower maintenance costs and shorten repair response times.

How Does IoT Help with Utility Poles?

The project focuses on two sensor designs, one developed by Atomation that can be nailed to the side of a wooden pole, and the other by Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) that can be attached to the top of the pole, to cross-arms, or to lines. The idea is to give the pole a bit of a brain, so when it leans too much or topples, the sensor could send an alert along with vital information to the utility’s headend.

For instance, a downed pole could let the utility know its precise location, size, and the number of cross-arms. A repair crew could then be dispatched directly to that exact location and be prepared with the needed equipment, reducing time and eliminating the need for a second trip to fetch parts.

The Ameren project—still in its early phase—calls for the installation of 15 pilot sensors on utility poles in Champaign. Ameren officials are hopeful the trial will prove beneficial to operations, but they need clear evidence the sensors provide tangible ROI benefits before moving ahead with a broader rollout.

The Internet of Power Poles?

In Australia, network provider Meshnet is promoting a similar use case for utility poles. The startup has developed solar-powered devices that operate over a proprietary wireless network. Once installed on poles, the devices can detect tiny movements and send signals to a utility that a pole needs servicing or replacing.

The company is also considering adding temperature, humidity, wind velocity, atmospheric pressure, and rain sensors to devices installed every 2.5 km on power poles to provide more granular weather data to a system. The company has yet to announce any deals with utilities, but it claims those are close. Perhaps with enough sensors and data flowing it could help create the Internet of Power Poles.

This Use Case Is Just One Example of IoT Potential

Though both efforts are more experimental at this stage, they do point out how new and more affordable IoT technologies can reshape the value proposition for something as common as a utility pole. Sensors and communications modules are now quite cheap compared to just a few years ago. So are prices for computing power needed for analyzing all the data new IoT connections produce, especially when using a cloud service such as Amazon Web Services or Azure.

This type of experimentation also demonstrates how legacy equipment can be brought into the connected digital world to create greater business value, not just for utilities but for many other industries. This is also discussed in Navigant Research’s Industrial Internet of Things report. Sometimes the value derives not from the shiny new object, but lies instead in retrofitting the durable old one.


The Vulnerable Electric Grid Might Be Tougher Than You Think

— April 10, 2018

The ongoing struggle to keep the US electric grid safe from attacks can seem like a losing proposition, especially given recent reports of Russian-sponsored hacking attempts and a serious warning about increasing vulnerability. However, there are quieter accounts of progress among those working to keep the grid safe.

Berkeley Lab Threat Detection Tool

One is a 3-year project led by Berkeley Lab researchers and supported by several key partners that features a new tool to detect cyber-physical attacks. The researchers designed a new architecture that combines a micro phasor measurement unit (μPMU) that captures data about the grid’s physical state with information from commonly used SCADA monitoring systems. Together, the combined data provides real-time feedback about grid performance through a redundant set of measurements with high fidelity. The idea is to bridge the gap between the physical world and the cyber world and find discrepancies that could indicate certain types of attacks are underway against grid components.

The Department of Energy (DOE) supported Berkeley Lab project is moving to the technology transfer stage, with the team preparing a final report and meeting with industry stakeholders to introduce them to this novel security framework. Partners on the project included EnerNex, EPRI, Riverside Public Utilities, and Southern Company.

Insurance Model to Protect the Grid?

In what seems like a stretch, two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers are investigating the potential of a new insurance model aimed at motivating utilities and regulators to invest more in cybersecurity assets. The idea is to support utilities implementing high cybersecurity tools with lower insurance premiums, and to penalize those with low cybersecurity processes with higher premiums. The two have funding from the National Science Foundation to build predictive models in a project that blends several disciplines, including electrical engineering, computer science, actuarial science, and statistics. More to come on this front, for sure.

Going Retro for Grid Security?

Meanwhile, there is a move in Congress to support older style tools to help safeguard the grid. The retro effort comes in the form of a senate bill that, if passed, would direct the national laboratories to partner with private companies to identify analog approaches that do not rely on digital infrastructure or tools. According to senators supporting the bill, the idea springs from the 2015 cyber attack on Ukraine’s energy grid in which operators restored power relatively quickly using human-powered or analog systems instead of digital. The bill is not without critics, one of whom claims it is a mistake to look backward for answers such as the ones proposed, though he applauds the focus being placed on enhanced security.

So the Grid Could Be Okay?

The takeaway from these disparate and under-the-radar efforts should be a sense of calm that not all is doom and gloom when it comes to grid security. The grid might be tougher than you think. The good guys are working on new solutions, too (be sure to check out Navigant Research’s recent report, Managing IoT Cybersecurity Threats in the Energy Cloud Ecosystem). Some solutions might have limited effects, like going retro, but there is hope future attacks will be countered with robust defenses that thwart attacks and keep the grid safe.

Power Standards Lab μPMU

Note: Developed at Power Standards Lab under a project led by Berkeley Lab and funded by DOE’s ARPA-E program, µPMUs are designed to increase situational awareness at the power distribution grid level.

(Source: Power Standards Lab)


Hacks, Hacks Everywhere: FERC, US Energy Grid, Atlanta Are All Targets

— April 3, 2018

Like Amazon deliveries, cyber attacks keep showing up on a regular basis. In recent days: the US charged nine Iranian citizens with a state-sponsored attack against a range of companies and agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC); the Trump administration blamed Russia for ongoing attempts to hack the US energy grid and other critical infrastructure; and key parts of Atlanta’s municipal computer system were knocked out by a ransomware attacker. Reports like these are becoming all too common.

State-Sponsored Attacks Warrant Concern

The first two raise serious red flags. State-sponsored attacks fall into the highest level of sophisticated cyber attacks. The hackers use the most advanced tools to break in, and with governments behind them they have nearly limitless resources to achieve their nefarious goals. Plus, they have the time to mount attacks over years if need be, probing on many fronts for the weak spots, and lurking in the background of computer systems or devices with almost undetected code. The Iranian attackers were said to have been operating from 2013 until the end of 2017, or roughly 4 years.

Hacking a federal agency or probing critical infrastructure poses dangerous threats. Messing with critical infrastructure can be viewed as an act of war, or a precursor to such hostilities. These types of attacks are not new, of course, and more than likely the US itself engages in these cyber techniques of probing and spying on friends and enemies on a regular basis. Experts warn that state-sponsored attacks are growing in scale, frequency, and sophistication, according to Leo Taddeo, chief information security officer at Cyxtera, a provider of infrastructure security solutions.

To Thwart Cyber Attacks, Cities Must Plan and Budget

Atlanta’s case is somewhat more benign. The attack kept some customers from paying bills, and residents were unable to access court-related information. As much as 4 days after the initial report of the attack the city’s servers were still struggling to enable online bill payments or the collection of fees. Moreover, the city had not said whether it would pay the ransom demand or not. For Atlanta, this cyber attack must sting, since it prides itself as a leading-edge smart city. Part of being on that leading edge, though, is accepting risks that come with newer technologies and learning hard lessons. The lesson here: make sure you plan and budget for the latest tools and best people to thwart cybercriminals, because this type of threat is not going away anytime soon.

These cyber attacks underscore the challenges of a connected Internet of Things (IoT) world. As governments, corporations, and utilities take advantage of IoT technologies, they must keep security measures at the forefront of all they do (see Navigant Research’s report, Managing IoT Cybersecurity Threats in the Energy Cloud Ecosystem, for practical steps to reduce the risks posed by cyber attacks). A smart grid or a smart city looks rather dumb when the security piece gets short shrift.


Consumers Are Ready for Upgraded Energy Platforms, and Utilities Should Oblige

— February 13, 2018

Utility managers in the US seeking to shake-up and modernize customer engagement have new evidence to support such efforts. A recent study supports the idea that many consumers are ready for an upgraded online platform to interact with their utility. The study, by Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative, finds nearly half (48%) of respondents said they would use an online platform that combines current and historical household energy usage data, preference settings, utility (or third-party) programs and offers, and use this information to help better understand and manage their energy use.

According to respondents, the two most popular applications are energy rewards programs (52% probably or definitely would use) and energy manager tools (46%). The study authors call on energy market stakeholders to move beyond energy alone and imagine how new innovations from other industry sectors can be applied to their businesses. In other words, think and act more like Amazon.

The study also underscores the growing trend of increased spending by utilities on customer experience tools across the globe, as noted by my colleague, Michael Kelly, in his recent Navigant Research report, Customer Management and Experience Technologies. In this report, he notes how engagement has become a much more complex process for utilities, and exhorts them to take a more proactive approach, deploying across multiple channels in a holistic manner so customers experience a consistent set of information and tools, no matter how they engage.

Behind-the-Scenes Work Needed, Too

There is no question engagement tools should keep pace with current consumer expectations. The customer-facing online tools they see today are often not up to expectations.

That said, there is also work to be done on the backend, those behind-the-scenes processes that can speed up the mundane and create a better experience for customers. Duke Energy has taken such steps by adopting robotic process automation (RPA), a new method of processing customer information. In the past, the company would have to manually process hundreds of thousands of requests a year for starting, stopping, or transferring energy services. That could take 3 business days to simply turn around the request during a peak season. Now, by using RPA technology, Duke Energy processes such requests around-the-clock, and can immediately send a confirmation to a customer who is then assured that their request was received and that follow-on services have been scheduled. This step reduces friction in the system.

Whether it is improved customer-facing platforms or deploying backend system upgrades through new tools like RPA, these steps must be taken by utilities. The customers have come to expect them. It still boggles my mind, though, at how slow the shift to new digital tools is in the utility sector compared to others. But at least the movement is headed in the right direction.


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