The “Smart City” movement has emerged as the dominant trend in the utility industry, as cities and municipalities seek to create smarter infrastructure and improve the lives of the citizens they serve. These cities now look to Big Data and the Internet of Things to create a more connected future, driving operational efficiencies and improving customer service, while helping customers become smarter about their usage.
Because many cities and municipalities own water and electricity infrastructure, these service areas provide a natural starting place for smart city solutions. Utilities can quickly capitalize by implementing technologies to enhance everything from leak detection to power outage restoration. Gas utilities, on the other hand, aren’t typically owned by the municipality, and therefore aren’t always top-of-mind in smart city conversations. What role does smart gas have in the smart city movement?
In this article, we’ll examine some of the technology solutions employed by gas utilities that place smart gas squarely in the smart city conversation, whether these utilities are owned by the municipality or not.
Connected gas infrastructure
The use of natural gas within homes and throughout commercial industries is growing at a steady pace all over the world. Affordability, stable pricing and reliability make natural gas an ideal choice – especially within North America. As gas continues to improve the quality of life for residents and businesses alike, the industry has a terrific opportunity to become a bigger part of the technological connectedness that is becoming the norm today.
Aligning with this movement, gas utilities are implementing advanced communication networks, a component of the smart grid system that has traditionally been applied to water and electricity. The openness of these networks unlocks the capability for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), allowing utilities to gain real-time data that improves employee safety, gives customers peace of mind and helps create new efficiencies. In many ways, that’s just the beginning.
Smart grid systems for natural gas can be paired with new applications to help gas utilities get out in front of operational challenges, including gas distribution, pressure measurements, pipe corrosion protection and remote disconnection in response to leaks and nonpayment. These capabilities dramatically improve customer service and improve efficiencies for the utility through integration with existing work-order management systems.
With smart technology solutions, gas utilities leverage real-time data with prioritized alarms that take safety to new levels. Beyond customer safety and improved response time, there’s considerable intelligence gained from the real-time data within their networks. That data allows utilities to evaluate performance and elevate the customer experience. These benefits lower the cost of doing business and build customer loyalty.
To maximize the potential benefits of smart gas, many utilities are looking beyond the gas meter and focusing on the entire solution. A secure and private communication network serves as the foundation, mainly because an open infrastructure can facilitate vulnerabilities. The system must also consistently function and be readily available when it’s needed most – such as extreme weather events.
Once the communication network is in place, devices and sensors enable gas utilities and municipalities to gather data – even from existing residential and commercial meters. This data helps gas providers better serve customers by understanding usage patterns and improving operational efficiencies. Currently available sensors monitor pressure and temperature levels, as well as transmit alarms to the utility or customer, enabling rapid resolution of an issue.
An exciting aspect of smart gas is the ability to monitor corrosion around the clock. The federal mandate is to test lines for corrosion once per year, and this is typically done at various points along the line. It’s a time-consuming and manpower-intensive process that often fails to take into account that a lot can happen throughout a single month, let alone an entire year.
With real-time corrosion monitoring, utilities get daily readings so they can prepare, versus react.
This can also allow them to redeploy highly skilled corrosion specialists to focus on maintenance, not data collection. Real-time corrosion monitoring allows a crew to perform work that used to take a full day, but now can be accomplished in less than five minutes.
In addition to trends across utilities, each utility has specific driving factors that affect the implementation of a smart offering. But prior to choosing among available platforms, what factors should be considered to ensure the best investment?
To accommodate growth in customer base, utilities must invest in a network that is upgradable and allows for additional applications as they develop. Utilities don’t want new technology to outdate – or outgrow – their established network. It must be able to expand and extend to uses not even conceived of today.
Another vital aspect that weighs heavily on decision-makers’ minds is information privacy. The utility communication network should be private to ensure consumer and utility security. Even when a communication network is private, but shared among utility “neighbors,” it’s imperative that security firewalls are impenetrable and the system can handle ever-growing use.
The future is even brighter with the latest advancements in cutting-edge technology. Ultrasonic meter technology, for example, offers gas utilities next-generation capabilities featuring a footprint about the size of a computer tablet and a battery life of 20 years. This newest, solid-state gas meter serves as the ultimate multitasker, not only measuring usage but also monitoring pressure, detecting theft and enabling remote shutoff.
Data and analytics continue to evolve in today’s technology-driven business environment. Implementing a smart gas solution gives utilities the ability to access more data more often, ultimately optimizing service, operational efficiency and system safety. Smart will be the new norm.
As the paradigm of utility delivery and consumption continues to shift and technology applications advance daily, it’s critical for gas utilities to continue looking to AMI and other solutions that will place them at the forefront of the smart city movement and capitalize on the promise of smart gas solutions.
About the Author:
Dan Bennett is the director of Global Gas Marketing at Sensus. He earned a BS degree in both electrical engineering and computer engineering from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C.