This Glorious Symphony of an Electricity System

September 29, 2015 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:think


  • Companies across the U.S. are finding new ways to increase energy efficiency through the use of emerging technologies like solar panels systems and wind farms
  • The era of Big Data has inspired a holistic approach to energy efficiency as well as the application of intelligent design across the entire system of energy development

How smart sensors are changing the energy game for oil and gas companies and renewable-energy startups alike


When Carla Schwartz had SolarCity install 27 solar panels on her house in Framingham, Mass., the outdoor collection of boxes, wires and switches looked like any other utility system. But Schwartz had essentially transformed her house into a mini power plant and through an application on her iPhone, she could see a complete picture of her own energy production and consumption. In real-time, her smart solar panels reported just how much energy they were producing, and smart meters around her house monitored when energy use spiked and when it fell. Schwartz could also monitor her homes excess energy production, which she would sell back to the local utility company for a discount on her electricity bill.


SolarCity is one of the fastest-growing solar companies in the country, with a quarter of a million customers, and its approach is one example of how Big Data is helping producers and consumers use energy more efficiently. Not only do homeowners like Schwartz now use less energy from traditional sources, but panels like those on Schwartzs roof also produce clean energy that can be used by neighbors.

Until recently, energy efficiency was seen to be a function of improvements in technology alone, but the era of Big Data has inspired a holistic approach as well as the application of intelligent design across the entire system of energy development, delivery and use. Whether on a wind farm or a deep-water oil rig, companies are using Big Data to predict how much energy will be produced by a source and manage the resource dynamically while optimizing operations.


"These emerging technologies are all instruments in the orchestra, and the role of Big Data is a little bit like the sheet music", says Bryan Hannegan of the National Renewable Energy Library. "If we can provide the right sheet music to all these instruments, then we get this glorious symphony of an electricity system that is reliable and affordable, but also a heck of a lot cleaner."



For an electricity grid to be stable, utility companies need to know how much energy is coming in, how much energy is needed and how to balance the two. The equation becomes particularly complex with renewables whose energy output is dependent on variables such as daylight and wind speed.


By using the kind of data captured by its smart solar panels across 15 states, SolarCity and companies like it can accurately predict how much excess solar energy will be available to the utility companies as well as how much customers will need. Combining that with additional data, such as weather forecasts, allows the utility to predict the state of the grid 24 hours in advance, helping to forestall blackouts, brownouts and unnecessary power-source startups and shutdowns.


Like solar panel systems, wind farms are using new technology to predict how much energy will be produced. Sensors mounted on the top of wind turbines collect data on how the wind is hitting the turbine, how much power will be created and how that will impact the grid. Manufacturers are making it possible to regulate the turbines in real-time, including the angles of individual blades in order to maximize the amount of energy produced by the wind.

"They can actively manage the wind as opposed to just passively taking what is coming", says Hannegan. "If I can turn the turbine into the wind and get more production, then I get more tax incentives, I get more power sales, I get more revenue and it helps improve the economics of the overall investment."


The Spanish company Iberdrola, for example, places enough sensors on its wind turbines to produce high-resolution, three-dimensional modeling of atmospheric turbulence. The data from each of its turbines is then loaded into a central control center. "They are looking at thousands, if not ten thousands, of wind turbines and managing that suite in the same way that fossil companies manage their whole power plants, says Hannegan. Every part of the energy sector is using Big Data to become more efficient and to optimize their business model."


That includes traditional oil and gas companies, which are also using Big Data to optimize operations in a way that makes them more energy efficient.


Royal Dutch Shell, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, relies increasingly on data-driven oil fields, which can help determine everything from where to drill to pricing at the pump. In looking for oil, probes are put into the ground to read seismic waves, which produces a particular pattern if oil and gas are present. Fiber optic cables transfer millions of the readings gathered from these probes to company geologists who compare the data to readings from other oil fields in order to improve their predictions of where to drill and the size of the reservoir.


Real-time analysis of drilling and other operations also helps maximize efficiency and monitors equipment for preventive maintenance that could avoid downtime. Meanwhile, algorithms combine data on the cost of production and refining with data on current outputs to help set prices at the pump.

While oil and gas companies are not typically thought of as sources of energy efficiency, Hannegan notes that energy savings at an oil field are just as significant as similar savings through renewables.

"A ton is a ton", says Hannegan. "If I can save a ton of carbon dioxide from improving the efficiency of an oil field operation, that is just as valuable as saving a ton of carbon dioxide by switching to a renewable field or becoming that much more efficient. The scale and the pace of the problem that we have laid out for ourselves as a society is so great that Ill take any ton I can get at this point."


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