The Grid Whisperers

July 15, 2016
It’s a challenging future where integrating intelligent things into intelligent networks has captured our attention.

Have you ever known a grid whisperer? These are individuals who have that uncanny ability to find the exact component that is about to fail within a system that has thousands of components. Maybe grid whisperer is stretching it a bit, but you know what I mean. These folks are maintenance masters, technology tamers and engineering experts. They are so attuned to their device-laden environment that they are far beyond the typical maintenance technicians and engineers you normally meet. Their attitude is something akin to Yoda’s “Feel the Force” approach. These wizards have a sixth sense that enables them to tell something is wrong with a piece of equipment before anything happens. Maybe it is something with its look, perhaps a sound, possibly a smell or perchance a vibration; you name it, they have it. They are the go-to guys when it comes to equipment problem solvers.

I have been lucky to have known several of these whizzes over my career. Their eerie abilities were amazing if not mind-blowing and, at the same time, a little creepy. One such person who immediately comes to mind is my friend Stan, whom I worked with at an HVDC converter station. Stan had unbelievable talents that defied explanation, and he followed a ritual every morning. Usually the first to arrive at the station, Stan would grab a cup of coffee and do his walkabout. He seemed to be picking up vibes from every piece of equipment he and his coffee cup came in contact with during his daily tour.

Maybe It’s the Coffee

Stan was definitely what I would call a grid whisperer and that coffee cup must have been his divining rod. I never found him to be mistaken in all the years I worked with him. When the component in question was closely inspected, we found the problem, and it usually was something that was about to fail.

As systems get more complicated and the technology more convoluted, this type of expertise is really needed, but it’s getting much harder to find individuals with this talent today. How do you develop this type of insight? It can’t be taught, it has to be acquired, and that is a big problem. The pace is too fast today to spend quality time with technology that changes almost overnight.

As a result, many manufacturers are enmeshed in a research and development effort to put intelligence in every level of the power-delivery system. Suppliers have been working with technologies to emulate the ability of a grid whisperer. They are doing this with smart grid technology, but it might be better thought of as a smarter grid technology. By embedding sensors throughout their equipment and connecting the sensors’ output to sophisticated dynamic monitoring systems with high-tech self-diagnostics, they are taking information and operational technology and “utility-izing” the data, as one of my friends puts it.

However, our manufacturers are not stopping at the apparatus level; they are working to make this distributed intelligence technology more of a grid whisperer on steroids, or perhaps a ubiquitous computing network with a connectivity on the scale of an entire utility transmission and distribution system.

Don’t get me wrong, this technology is not replacing staff members. It is merely a tool that is making us more efficient along with redefining maintenance criteria. You might say we are interconnecting devices that respond autonomously to changes in those devices and systems. All of this advancement fits into a technology being called the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT technology has been shaping society and business on a scale that is hard to imagine. Simply put, IoT is a mind-boggling notion that by connecting intelligent things together, we will make globally intelligent networks. This concept is proving so powerful in business that it had already morphed into the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) before the ink was dry on the IoT buzzword. And if that doesn’t cause the linguistics portion of your brain to pause, the technology buzzword generator recently flashed out a new segment of the IIoT known as the Utility Internet of Things (UIoT), which is focused specifically on our industry.

This UIoT technology should not surprise us. Hasn’t the electric grid been described as the largest and most complex machine ever created by humankind, and by default is also the most intelligent network out there? Our industry has been intelligent for years — long before intelligence was cool. After all, we have been controlling microprocessors and intelligent electronic devices with RTUs and SCADA for years. Utilities have been dealing with information and operational technology longer than most of us have been associated with the industry. Utilities have always kept these two apart, but today these two technologies are being converged by IoT technologies and its offshoots.

It’s a challenging future where integrating intelligent things into intelligent networks has captured our attention. We are using this new technology to homogenize all this data to identify the most critical devices out there for repair or replacement, much like the fabled grid whisperer, but doing it with a digital grid whisperer. The digital technologies of this UIoT are solving the grid’s problems, but it’s not easy; it requires changing the way we think and the way we work. Turning IoT technology into grid-whispering technology is an ambitious undertaking, but it is an undertaking whose time has come.

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