Navigant Research Blog

Robots Reduce Risks for Utility Line Workers

— March 11, 2015

In 2014, Time magazine reported on the 2013 rankings of America’s most dangerous jobs. Electrical power line installers and repairers suffered 27 fatalities per 100,000 workers, making these the 7th most dangerous jobs in the country. While fatalities are down from around 30 to 50 annually in past years, according to T&D World magazine, the fatality rate is more than twice that of police officers and fireman. Fortunately, new technologies are expected to reduce these deaths in the coming years.

The most common cause of death to linemen is live, energized wires. T&D World also reports that new technologies used to maintain, repair, and rebuild lines and transmission equipment are now being developed and deployed. These technologies include a range of robotic devices that are designed to minimize risk to field employees while at the same time reducing operational costs and maintaining or improving transmission and distribution system reliability.

Almost Indestructible

With the speed of technical development and advances in artificial intelligence, new applications and technologies are certain to emerge in future years. For now, robotic grid technologies fall into three categories:

  • Line-suspended robots: Deployed over the last 8 years, these devices are designed to perform visual inspections and maintenance functions previously completed by utility linemen under sometimes dangerous conditions. They use cameras and specialized sensors for inspections, and can make basic repairs and adjustments to transmission lines, as well as other necessary applications. These robots can travel over and across live transmission system conductor lines under most conditions. Hydro Quebec has developed a line-suspended robotic device called LineScout that is being deployed on power lines where it has the capacity to cross obstacles. Another robotic device called LineROVer is used by the utility as a remotely operated vehicle for work on live overhead lines.
  • Ground-based robots: Designed to manipulate energized conductors remotely and execute tasks that are far too dangerous for linemen, these technologies have been in use for more than 10 years and are increasingly able to handle large, heavy conductors. These machines are best at tasks like maintenance, upgrades, and construction of transmission lines, performing jobs such as replacing structures and conductors and changing insulation.
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs): Often called drones, UAVs are designed for visual inspections of transmission line components, right-of-way (ROW) conditions, vegetation under the ROW, access into structures, landslides near structure footings, and other unusual conditions. You can read more about drones in my previous Navigant Research blog.

The spreading use of robotics could improve grid operations and, more importantly, reduce the danger to electrical power line installers and repairers. If that happens, linemen will soon drop out of the top 10 rankings of dangerous jobs.

 

Wireless Bulbs Offer Connected Light Controls

— October 20, 2014

Homeowners around the world have begun to transition from incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) to more efficient and higher quality light-emitting diodes (LEDs).  Navigant Research’s report, Residential Energy Efficient Lighting and Lighting Controls, forecasts that LED sales for residential applications will increase at a compound annual growth rate of 17.6% through 2023.  Within this wholesale shift of lamp types, however, is another trend with far-reaching implications.

More and more  LED light bulbs are being sold with integrated wireless connectivity.  Instead of being controlled with simple switches, or even physical dimmers, these bulbs connect to the Internet, often through the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network, and can then be controlled through applications on a computer or smartphone.

This capability may seem extravagant, but the trend is picking up steam surprisingly quickly.  One of the first entrants to the category of wireless light bulbs was the Philips Hue, launched in October 2012.  Since then, nearly all of the large lighting companies have launched products in this category, including OSRAM, GE, Samsung, and LG.  In total, 18 different wireless light bulb products are available from 16 different manufacturers, including Greenwave Systems, Leedarson, LIFX Labs, Belkin, Fujikom, Whirlpool, and others.

Mood Lighting

These products come with a large range of features.  All are capable of dimming, while only some are able to change color (Philips, LIFX Labs, OSRAM, Tabu, Fujikom, and Environmental Lights).  Through various software applications, the lighting can be modified based on the time of day, weather conditions, or any other user preferences.  Lighting can also be tied into other home systems, such as the Philips Hue’s ability to connect with the Nest Protect smoke detector and flash red lights when either smoke or carbon monoxide are detected.  The Hue even allows lighting to be modified based on programmed sequences as an audio book is being read to provide a fully immersive scene for the listener.

Wireless bulbs come with a significant price premium over their non-connected counterparts.  While outlets such as The Home Depot have begun selling standard A-type LED bulbs for under $10, wireless bulbs are priced between $30 and $60 apiece.  As this premium comes down, and as more users become interested in the range of possibilities made available through connected lighting, adoption is expected to increase rapidly.

 

Automation Gives Manufacturers an Energy Boost

— October 17, 2014

According to the U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, a measure developed by financial research firm Markit, manufacturing activity in the United States in September reached its highest point in more than 4 years.  Factory employment, though still well below pre-2008 levels, reached its highest level since March 2012.

U.S. manufacturers are getting a boost from low energy costs, driven primarily by the bonanza of low-cost natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, by distributed renewables, often onsite at plants).  But what’s going on inside U.S. plants is equally important.  Increased energy efficiency, enabled by a revolution in process automation technology, is also helping U.S. manufacturers compete with manufacturers that enjoy low-cost labor in developing countries, particularly China.

Excess No Longer Success

Since peaking around 1999, the primary energy use in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined steadily, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, from about 35 quadrillion BTUs annually to less than 31 quads.  Energy intensity – the BTUs used per dollar value of shipments – has declined even more dramatically.

The shift is coming as a shock to old-line factory managers unused to calculating energy as a key metric of efficiency and productivity.  “No one ever got fired for purchasing a pump or a machine that’s too big for the job,” said Fred Discenzo, manager of R&D at Rockwell Automation, at a recent energy management conference in Akron, Ohio.  In manufacturing, “excess capacity has always been the safe option.”

Rockwell is among an emerging segment of technology vendors that is trying to change that, through what it calls “the connected enterprise.”  What that means is connecting the factory floor to the C-suite with far greater visibility and immediacy than before.  Another name for this change might be “extreme granularity.”  In the near future, energy use will be measured not at the factory or line or machine level, but at the individual process level, per unit of production: how much energy did it take to make this widget or valve or bag of ice, and where in the process can that energy use be optimized?

The Next Revolution

Advances in factory floor networks, wireless sensors, virtualization, and monitoring equipment are enabling these improvements in manufacturing efficiency, energy conservation, and quality control.  These twinned revolutions – cleaner, cheaper, more distributed energy coming into the plant and sophisticated automation technology reducing energy intensity inside the plant – will result in changes that have far-reaching implications for the manufacturing sector, and for the economy.  “The new era of manufacturing will be marked by highly agile, networked enterprises that use information and analytics as skillfully as they employ talent and machinery to deliver products and services to diverse global markets,” concluded a 2012 McKinsey study entitled Manufacturing the Future.

At 32% of total energy consumption, industry uses more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy.  Manufacturers that adapt to the new realities of energy, by changing the ways in which they source and use electricity, will be more competitive on the global stage – and could help usher in the new economic upswing that politicians and analysts have been dreaming of for years.

 

Hidden Meters Provide Visible Savings

— September 8, 2014

A fundamental challenge in commercial building energy management is in understanding where all the electrons are flowing.  Most buildings have a meter that will tell the facility or energy manager how much power is being consumed, and smart meters have contributed greatly to their insight (in some parts of the world, including the United States, groups of buildings share a meter).  And many, such as apartment buildings, have dedicated meters for each tenant.

But to find out how much power is consumed by tenants or equipment, a finer grain view is needed.  It sounds easy to simply deploy more meters or submeters, watch the data flow in, and manage accordingly.  But the barriers to additional submeters, including the cost of deployment and regulatory issues, are limiting their deployment.

Most large heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other large equipment vendors now sell embedded energy meters with their equipment, making energy management for large systems possible, albeit more expensive.  Today, an alternative is on the rise, in the form of in-line circuit breaker meters.  These devices snap on to the feeder wires of the breakers, recording the power used inside the cable without interfering with it.  All of these companies are touting the fast and easy installation, along with the value of actionable data for facility managers.  These are compelling arguments, especially considering the vast amount of commercial space and the massive plug loads associated with them.

Thinking Inside the Box

A few companies use these innocuous looking grey boxes as the data source to manage energy, displacing the traditional meter and submeter streams and setting up an interesting set of partnerships along the way.   Pennsylvania-based E-Mon sells a line of circuit breaker submeters that capture power and can then communicate via Ethernet (or TIA-485-A) with an energy management system (EMS).  While E-Mon has its own software package, the company recently announced a partnership with Honeywell to use its Attune Energy Dashboard service.   Similarly, Panoramic Power formed a partnership with Lucid, joining its ConnectNow partner group.  Panoramic Power sells only energy services, not the devices themselves, and uses wireless as opposed to wired solutions.

Enertiv both sells devices and EMSs, using Ethernet to communicate with the EMS.  In late July, the New York City-based company received $750,000 in seed funding, indicating the interest in this space.  This interest is rubbing off on newcomer Bractlet.  The Austin-based company, receiver of venture capital and seed funding from Start-Up Chile, sees circuit-level data as a way to validate the upfront costs needed for building retrofits and a way for building and energy managers to measure the value of retrofits.

It’s a compelling business case.  When it comes to retrofits, the first question asked is, “What will this retrofit cost me?” Followed by, “How long will it take to recoup my investment?”  The last question is the most difficult: “How will I know if those savings are actually achieved?” Bractlet, along with its competitors in this emerging space, may have the right approach to answering those questions.

 

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