The last day of DistribuTECH 2019 last week prompted an engaging discussion about the impact of IoT and blockchain on current and future energy delivery models. With a rapidly evolving technology landscape, today’s utility industry is becoming increasingly complex on all fronts. As a result, we are starting to see an interrelationship between emerging grid architectures to support integration, IoT and network architectures that reinforce distributed computing in the grid, and blockchain 101 for energy systems.

During a breakout session on “The Impact of IoT and Blockchain on Current and Future Energy Delivery Models,” Jim Ogle, senior manager of network engineering at Avista Utilities, provided a utility’s perspective on how disruptive technologies like blockchain and smart contracts will play a role in evolving traditional utility business and service delivery models. The conversation kicked off around transformation and disruption in the industry. Ogle noted there is a confluence of influences coming together to really steer us in this new direction, and a core part of that is the realization and acceptance that we need to operate our businesses and consume our resources in a more sustainable manner.

“The environmental forces for us are a significant driver for looking to do things differently. If you look at decarbonization, the adoption of renewables and distributed energy resources (DERs), and the electrification of transportation, those things are all coming together to have us rethink how we provide energy to customers and how they want to consume that energy.”

Those influences are also driving new business models, creating new markets and new opportunities, and changing the way energy is delivered. The need for increased security is driving new advances for technologies like blockchain, which is accelerating the ability for us to recognize other drivers for change.

A common theme throughout DistribuTECH was how utilities are now thinking about products and services as more than just the generation, transport and metering of energy. They are taking a customer-centric view of how they move forward in the face of customers’ changing expectations.
The grid can provide more choices for how consumers are going to consume energy. In order to accomplish this, Ogle said there needs to be more awareness. He predicts there is ultimately going to be a tiered framework of coordination for DERs, asserting utilities need to have intelligence out there at the edge to offer local choices so that customers can have energy where they need it and how they want it.

With distributed intelligence, devices need to talk to each other, which relates back to IoT. The grid, IoT and distributed intelligence are all coming together to have a systematic effect on this new energy ecosystem, tying together these different technology forces and physical forces.

Ogle went on to discuss the importance of security and how blockchain will play a role. He described blockchain as a distributed, immutable ledger technology that enables shared trust and transparency. “In the old world of banking, you had a centralized bank you would grant trust to manage your account and they would create a ledger to keep track of debits and credits.” With blockchain, Ogle said you are distributing that ledger to all these different nodes that are participating on that chain. And through a combination of traditional cyber security, public key/private key transactions, you get ensured trust as these peer-to-peer transactions take place, and everyone has a ledger or record of those transactions. There is a variety of things that can fit this model in the energy industry as we start thinking about the distributed grid.

Ogle provided a use case example about Avista’s micro-transactive grid project where they have created a smart city pilot area in its university district in Spokane. Avista has many different DERs serving multiple buildings and customers. They have batteries, solar, building management systems and metering. In trying to optimize the use of DERs while also providing a grid-optimal solution, Avista believes better results can be achieved for all parties involved if they were coordinating together, rather than being independent and trying to optimize alone.

Part of Avista’s project is to start exploring peer-to-peer energy transactions where they would have a blockchain that is operating a node in the microgrid controller, a node in the building management system or a node on the AMI meters. “These nodes can start working on transacting energy out of smart contracts that say if this event occurs, I want to switch from consuming energy from this battery device over there. The direction is to implement this on the blockchain.”

We learned that transactive energy, basic authentication and authorization are all opportunities for blockchain use cases. Another example of using blockchain in a different way is to ensure the security of the data that is being exchanged between the configuration data and the edge devices on the grid.

This panel provided great insight into the projected impacts of disruptive technology trends and how they can be harnessed to ensure a pathway of innovation towards enabling our next-generation intelligent grids and distributed energy ecosystems.

In another session, we heard from Okechukwu Chika, principal project manager for grid modernization within ComEd’s Smart Grid & Technology Department. Chika led an engaging session on intelligent streetlights as the foundation for smart cities. He educated the crowd on ComEd’s pilot smart streetlight program. The six-year deployment, expected to be completed in 2023, covers the conversion of all 140,000 ComEd-owned “cobra-head” style streetlights to smart LED fixtures.

The smart functionality of each LED fixture head is seated with a smart node. ComEd has deployed smart nodes on its streetlights using Itron’s NIC (networks interface card) to communicate on the Itron network, which allows for real time on/off control of streetlights and dims lights to less than 100 percent power on a set schedule.

Chika said ComEd experienced many benefits from adding intelligence to their streetlights, one being improved response time to outages. Before, the utility was able to detect outages if a customer told them or if they drove by and saw that the light was out.

“We use Itron’s Streetlight Vision (SLV) software to control and monitor our smart streetlights. It produces streetlight outage tickets in real-time with precise streetlight locations, allowing us to respond faster and be more efficient with the crews we send out.”

Itron will connect and manage up to 140,000 municipal smart streetlights across ComEd’s service territory, leveraging Itron’s multi-application IPv6 networking platform that ComEd is using for a variety of smart grid applications. This initiative will accelerate municipal lighting modernization and smart city development in northern Illinois.

Stand by for more updates on ComEd’s smart streetlight program as it sets the new standard for streetlights and advances ComEd’s efforts to transform the electric system serving 70 percent of Illinois!

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