Utilities of the future: How Australian utilities are benefitting from going digital

Roads & Infrastructure magazine looks at the benefits, opportunities and challenges that face Australian utilities making the jump into the Information Age.Roads & Infrastructure magazine looks at the benefits, opportunities and challenges that face Australian utilities making the jump into the Information Age.

The digital revolution has allowed companies to improve their products and services through the adoption of technology. Data has become a tool to pinpoint what needs to be done and where.

One example of these digital disruptors is Uber. By using an app that was able to collect data from drivers, riders and a variety of other areas in the market, the company was able to provide a service that shook the taxi industry.

Other industries that have been shifting away from analogue to digital technologies include transportation, agriculture, logistics, manufacturing and waste. To do so, sensors are often used to collect valuable data to maximise the efficiencies in their networks.

Utilities, such as energy and water service providers, are no stranger to sensors, often using them to track the usage of resources by their consumers top ensure there are no shortages. With Australia’s population set to grow to 42.5 million by 2056, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data, the strain on utility infrastructure is also set to increase.

Companies and governments around Australia have begun making the transition to new technologies when it comes to utilities, each with their own particular challenges and successes.

Wide web of water

An example of how utilities can take advantage of a digital network can be seen in SA Water’s recent award-winning system.

Adelaide is in one of the driest states in Australia. The clay-based soils of South Australia put pressure on the underground water infrastructure, which can lead to pipe bursts. These require emergency repairs that can interrupt traffic and leave residents without water.

More than 400 sensors were installed across the Adelaide CBD to give SA Water data it could use to react quickly to any issues before they became a major problem.

The system is made up of 305 acoustic leak detection sensors, 34 pressure sensors – of which 23 are transient loggers, 11 flow meters, three water quality monitors and 100 smart meters. These sensors collect information and transmit the data in five to 15-minute intervals to SA Water.

Dr. Helen Edmonds, SA Water’s Manager of Water Assets, says the sensors provide accurate and real time data about the network across the CBD.

“Acoustic sensors make up the majority of the smart network and allow us to listen to the water for any changes that might mean there’s a leak or break in the pipe,” she says.

“This helps us understand what is happening in the network and respond to any irregularities as soon as we detect them. Because of this, we’re able to understand the network as it ages and the external impacts that are placed upon it.”

The acoustic sensors have an average range of around 150 metres and monitor half of the main water network in Adelaide’s CBD, focusing on the areas where a potential issue would greatly impact customers.

With this network in place, Dr. Edmonds says SA Water has prevented 15 water main breaks since it began monitoring and collecting data in July 2017.

“The music of the network tells us a story, but the art and science of this is combining the algorithms we’ve built to distinguish an evolving leak from typical water usage sounds from the background noise of a busy city street,” Dr. Edmonds says.

“One of the transient loggers detected a recurring event with a consistent hydraulic character, happening on the same day and time, every week. It turned out to be the result of a large building’s fire service being tested.

“Having this information meant we could work together with the building owner to calm the weekly testing process, and also with the technical regulator to amend design standards for future builds.”

Customers are also able to access information on their water usage through an online portal connected to the smart meters, which helps SA Water to identify abnormalities in consumption.

“We were able to alert a customer to 100 litres a minute being lost by a faulty float valve constantly refilling their building’s header tank. The excess water was just overflowing into the sewer and, if it was left undetected until their next bill, the water loss alone would have cost over $15,000 a month,” she says.

This maintenance forewarning means SA Water is able to repair the fault at the best possible time to minimise disruptions.

“Avoiding a major failure at around 7am and 5pm helps avoid interruptions to the customers and commuters. Early in the morning, when people are showering before work, it’s important to ensure they have access to water. Similarly, when peak hour traffic hits the CBD, we want to avoid roadworks that cause delays for commuters,” she says.

“With the smart network, we now have the information to plan actively instead of reacting. This means we can schedule works during off peak and quiet times so that customers might not even realise the disruption.”

Dr. Edmonds says SA Water has learned a lot about the network from the acoustic sensors, including how noise travels and how to interpret it. She adds there’s still much more that can be learned, with help from the University of Adelaide to further optimise the system.

“In the long term, we hope to understand how the network reacts due to external influence and begin to develop predictive analysis. In theory, SA Water could be able to replace a pipe before an issue is even detected.”

Dr. Edmonds says the digital network has been so successful, further rollouts to other areas of the city are now planned for both water and wastewater later in 2018.

“Digital infrastructure is a fast developing and always changing area. SA Water is planning to expand the network beyond the CBD to areas within metropolitan Adelaide. However, these will have a different focus depending upon the needs of each areas,” she says.

“In just 10 months we’ve proved this combination of smart technology can effectively reduce the impact of water main breaks on our customers, so we now have an obligation to spread this benefit across as much of our network and customer base as possible.”

SA Water’s smart network helped the organisation win the joint 2018 Australian Digital Utility of the Year Award. Dr. Edmonds says the greater understanding made possible by the sensor data has encouraged more considered and effective decision making, contributing to the city’s liveability.

She adds that other cities planning on installing a similar network should consult organisations and cities which have found what went well and what didn’t with respective rollouts.

“It is important to remember each city will have different contexts, meaning some things will work better in certain regions. By continuously learning and developing, creating a digital network leads to significant benefits.”

Electricity networks

Similar to SA Water’s successful transition to digital sensor technology, the energy industry has begun the move towards digital networks in Australia. However, this has not been without its own unique challenges and obstacles.

One of the most high-profile examples has been Tesla’s announcement to open the world’s largest virtual power plant in South Australia, following AGL’s announcement of a similar network.

It uses a network of solar panels and battery systems, installed over a number of homes, working together to generate, store and feed energy back into the grid. It’s similar to battery technology for storing renewable energy but spread out across the state.

The energy generated by this system powers the household and is then sent into the grid where it can provide extra energy for the state. Residents can also use a connected app to monitor their own energy usage.

The SA Government says it can meet around 20 per cent of the entire state’s average daily energy requirements, with analysis from economic consultancy Frontier Economics estimating it will slash energy prices by 30 per cent.

Professor Graham Town from Macquarie University says that with electricity and infrastructure, in general, improved monitoring of the systems being used can increase their efficiency and resilience.

He explains the technology to monitor electricity infrastructure exists today in the form of volt and current sensors.

His research looks at the development and application of smart grids, which involve telecommunications infrastructure being connected to a grid to control the distributed energy systems.

“There needs to be a way for people to communicate they need energy and to communicate if they have excess energy,” he says.

By doing so, Prof. Town explains that the energy would be able to be used more effectively and efficiently across the network as a whole.

A challenge Australia faces when it comes to implementing smarter technology into electricity infrastructure is the skills shortage. Prof. Town says that these future scenarios need engineers that have different skills compared with the classic power engineer.

“People who can think differently about the future are needed. Unless we have people who are skilled and can think outside the box, we will be limited in the possibilities that we can explore.”

With change comes risk, which can be a hurdle when looking at Australia’s electricity system. Prof. Town says Australians are used to a reliable network and to ensure future cyber-physical systems remain reliable requires ongoing research in cybersecurity, such as the research being done currently at Macquarie University.

One of these risks is the threat of hackers and cyberattacks. Prof. Town says any system that is widely connected to one or more networks is open to an attack.

“How we maintain the reliability of a digital network and manage the issues of security in telecommunication networks is something that is being worked on at the moment,” he says.

“Energy is a vital resource and we have become used to a reliable supply grid. There has been quite a lot of research done on cybersecurity at the moment, as an attack can be very serious.”

Security is not the only challenge when it comes to moving to a digital system. Prof. Town says careful thinking is needed to ensure stakeholders and governments can create the correct laws and regulations which will ultimately impact industry and consumers.

“It is important to remember that these things can’t be done overnight as they are an evolving process. In some parts of the system there would have to be radical change.

“It’s important to think about how the technology can be used to the best extent,” he says.

“Establishing the right policy and frameworks are important to ensure everyone can benefit from future developments in this industry.”

One technology Prof. Town is researching in relation to smart electricity grids is electric vehicles being used as a mobile source of storage for the grid.

“The distributed and intermittent nature of renewable energy means it requires storage to balance the supply and demand of energy. That storage needs to be managed and requires communication to ensure it is managed effectively.

“That storage could take a number of forms but currently we think about batteries in people’s garages or a battery near a large solar or wind farm, for example.

“However, a battery inside an electric vehicle is typically five to 10 times larger than a stationary battery that might be housed in a garage, creating a huge resource,” he says.

Prof. Town says that the energy stored in the electric vehicle’s batteries can be utilised if or when it is needed through a process called vehicle-to-grid transfer.

He explains that with wireless technology these vehicles could take advantage of this storage resource to balance the intermittency of renewable energy generation. Essentially, cars would be able to connect or supply energy when parked at a ‘smart’ charger, capable of vehicle-to-grid transfer, which can be installed at home or even at a workplace, shopping centre or car park.

This means that the batteries within electric vehicles can store the excess energy on the grid when there is a surplus and return energy to the grid when it is parked.

“There is currently a trial of vehicle-to-grid technology in Denmark. The current state of the art is not bad, but the full extent of the technology has yet to be realised through communications and management technologies.”

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