1660343052036 Philbeecherheadshotcopy

How smarter grids help manufacturers weather risks

July 19, 2021

Manufacturers are particularly exposed to such events.

Wi-SUN Alliance's Phil Beecher

All over the globe, extreme-weather events are fast evolving from a relatively rare occurrence to something that should be built into the risk profile of any manufacturer. In fact, they ranked third on the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report for 2021 in terms of “clear and present dangers” likely to emerge in the next two years. One of the biggest potential impacts of these events is on the power grid. In the US, wildfires, extreme cold snaps, hurricanes, earthquakes and flash floods all pose a risk to supply—and in turn, to manufacturers’ bottom line.

The good news is that the emergence of smart technologies and edge computing represent a major leap forward for the industry, which could help to prevent and mitigate the impact of outages. But to create smart grids, you first need the right kind of robust, bi-directional communications networks.

Why weather matters to manufacturers

It’s now impossible to ignore the impact of climate change on everyday life. As early as April this year, the US Drought Monitor put 60% of western states under “severe,” “extreme” or “exceptional” drought. At the other end of the spectrum, an extreme cold snap in Texas in February plunged the state into sub-zero temperatures. Dozens died and billions in damage was caused to property and infrastructure.

These events are testing the resilience of the nation’s power infrastructure in unprecedented ways. Extreme cold, heat, wind, or tremors can take down power lines and damage power infrastructure, while also driving spikes in demand for energy. One study found that weather events caused 80% of all outages between 2003 and 2012. A few years back the total cost of outages to the US economy was estimated at $150 billion annually. It is likely to be far greater today.

Manufacturers are particularly exposed to such events. Aside from the downtime suffered during a blackout, both outages and power surges during restoration can damage business-critical equipment, which may be expensive to repair. Although some manufacturing processes can survive without power for longer than others, even small power flickers can be serious for some businesses. The financial impact of even an hour of downtime for some producers such as carmakers could be measured in millions of dollars, according to some estimates.

How smarter networks can help

Smarter grids have the potential to deliver improved stability, visibility and control for operators—reducing the impact of outages on manufacturers and driving faster, safer power restoration. Power reclosers can be used to manage outages more intelligently, by opening and closing to divert power when there is a fault on a section of overhead lines. In this way they can reduce the risk of a short circuit and minimize the impact of an issue on customers. Smart reclosers enable remote operation and automation of the equipment for greater efficiency and control.

Edge computing is a key ingredient in making smart grids more adaptive, responsive and resilient. By feeding edge-computing hubs information from line sensors and pole-tilt sensors distributed across the network, data can be processed locally to take action if there’s a fault. Power can be rerouted, engineers alerted to fix a problem and—in the case of pole-tilt sensors—failures can be anticipated. Thanks to edge computing, operators are freed from the inflexibility imposed by a centralized system so that sections of the grid can be brought back online individually when ready, to minimize the impact of an outage.

Taking the concept even further, manufacturers are increasingly looking to low-carbon microgrids to increase their energy security. Powered mainly by renewable sources such as solar or wind, these deployments are able to function independently of the main grid, to offer greater reliability in the event of a major outage, and improved affordability. 

The need for dynamic networks

These innovations are a huge leap forward for the industry, which could help to minimize the financial and operational risks to manufacturing caused by extreme weather and power disruption. But they won’t work in isolation. The “secret sauce” for any smart grid is its communications network. It must be able to connect those edge devices, sensors, and other industrial-control systems in a reliable and robust way.

This is where wireless mesh networks come into their own. They’re designed to be highly distributed, with devices connected to each other rather than a centralized office. This means traffic is routed dynamically, adapting to changes in the topology of the network. It’s a perfect fit for smart grids as it provides multiple routes for data transfer in the event of an outage. Mesh networking supports edge computing and smart metering in this context, enabling more intelligent rerouting of power and faster resolution of issues to minimize impact on manufacturers.

These bi-directional, dynamic communications networks are also key for microgrids. They support autonomous operation of isolated grids in the event they’ve been disconnected from the main grid during an outage, and then use P2P capabilities for more seamless and synchronized reconnection later on. In fact, local computing power is key to managing renewables in general, during periods when supply dips and other power sources are needed—as in Texas, where wind turbines froze. Dynamic mesh networks provide the adaptive control to manage these scenarios seamlessly.

Building for the future

For manufacturers keen to drive greater energy security in the face of weather-affected supply issues, low-carbon microgrids represent an increasingly popular choice. But it’s important to review the core technology that helps to make these a reality. Organizations not only need to consider mesh topologies for more seamless connectivity to the main grid, but also whether components are future-proofed.

These are long-term investments, and require underlying networking technology built on industry standards. That means you’re not only getting stress-tested, highly secure and reliable equipment, but also interoperable kit that ultimately offers integrators more choice and keeps costs down—now and into the future.

Phil Beecher is the president and CEO of Wi-SUN Alliance and a recognized global expert on wireless IoT. He can be reached at [email protected]