The Hype Is Warranted—Mostly

Enough with the predictions about the Internet of Things and the trillions of dollars it may or may not generate as billions of things come online and transmit their Big Data to the cloud. Let’s get back to the present. What is the IoT really doing for enterprises today and how does it do it?

Matt Newton, Director of technical marketing, Opto 22
Matt Newton, Director of technical marketing, Opto 22

The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about connecting the unconnected, bridging the gap between information technology (the digital world) and operations technology (the physical world) to rapidly accelerate insight into business operations, so we can reduce costs and increase profitability. Sounds easy enough—sort of. But what’s driving this demand for accelerated insight?

Born through the convergence of the digital and physical worlds, the IoT has created the new data economy. Acquiring and analyzing data assets in real time allows businesses to make the most profitable decisions possible based on what’s happening now. Real-time visibility into operational data has become one of the modern enterprise’s most valuable tools. And that’s exactly what SCADA Solutions has done for wind farm operators across California.

Green energy initiatives put in place decades ago in California have substantially improved the state’s air quality today. But managing green sources of electric power generation has complicated the state’s electricity pricing structure. Demand on California’s electrical grid spikes or plummets by the hour. The market price (spot price) of electricity California utilities pay to energy producers can literally change every minute. Based on grid demand, the spot price of electricity can go substantially negative (as low as -$500/kWh) or substantially high ($400/kWh) when demand peaks. The pricing structure is incentive-based so that operators pay close attention to the cost of energy at any given moment. Prices can drop so low that operators actually end up paying the utility for the power they put on the grid. This means that energy producers, like wind farm operators, must spin up or down electrical generation equipment literally at a moment’s notice to maximize profits and avoid negative price drops.

Bridging the OT/IT gap

To accomplish this, SCADA Solutions has leveraged IoT technologies to remotely monitor and automatically control wind turbines based on real-time market pricing data and historical operation costs. SCADA Solutions combines off-the-shelf products from Opto 22 and in-house-developed software to bridge the OT/IT gap and provide real-time monitoring and control of these remote assets—some of which are nearly 30 years old.

Intelligence and communication start with SCADA Solutions’ cloud-based WindCapture software. WindCapture uses a RESTful API to connect over the Internet to California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the electrical authority in the state, and poll the spot price of electricity in real time. Using RESTful APIs is important in IoT applications, since most of the Internet—mobile applications, social media, mashup tools and automated business processes—relies on them for interoperability and communication. Data from CAISO is temporarily stored in a database hosted in the cloud before being sent over the Internet to an Opto 22 SNAP PAC System.

This off-the-shelf SNAP PAC System offered SCADA Solutions a lot of flexibility to bridge the gap between the digital world of the Internet and the physical world of wind turbines. The programmable automation controller (PAC) has a robust set of IoT communication technologies built into it, like HTTP, TCP/IP and a RESTful interface.The PAC also comes with networking and information security features like IP filtering and SSL/TLS data encryption. For interfacing with the physical world, the SNAP PAC System offers over 100 different types of analog and digital SNAP I/O modules featuring channel-to-channel isolation, EMI resistance, and industrial temperature and humidity ratings to survive the harsh environments found at the network edge.

Using Opto 22’s groov mobile operator interface, wind farm operators can monitor the price of electricity through an app on their mobile device and manually ramp up or down electricity generation at the wind turbine with the push of a smartphone button. The groov interface is built using drag-and-drop, point-and-click, web-based software that requires no programming. Resulting groov screens comply with HTML5, the latest-generation markup language designed for today’s web browsers and interoperability between systems. Users can open a groov screen from a browser on their PC, mobile device, or even a big screen TV. Operators literally have their HMI in their pocket, wherever they are.

Pushing edge intelligence further

SCADA Solutions pushed edge intelligence even further by storing vendor-specific turbine profiles in the Opto 22 PAC file system. The profiles are essentially a small database of information that lists how profitable each turbine is, based on historic operation costs and environmental conditions like wind speed. The PAC uses its built-in logic to calculate real-time profitability using several data points. First the PAC receives the spot price of electricity from the cloud. Then the wind speed is obtained from an anemometer at the turbine site. Finally, the PAC analyzes the turbine profiles stored on its file system to determine if it is a profitable time to start or stop the wind turbines and, for each turbine, what the best rotor pitch is to maximize profit and reduce operating costs.

The wind turbines can also monitor their own physical health. Using vibration sensors connected to the turbine shaft and temperature sensors monitoring the turbine’s oil temperature, the PAC monitors what’s happening in the physical world at the wind turbine. If the vibration of the turbine shaft is approaching a preset unsafe threshold, the PAC automatically takes the turbine offline and notifies an operator via email or text message that the turbine needs maintenance. Operators maximize oil life span and schedule pre-planned maintenance outages based on oil temperature data aggregated and analyzed in the cloud.

The PAC converts the analog and digital signals from sensors into protocols and languages the IoT understands, like TCP/IP, RESTful APIs, JSON documents and HTTPS. Moving information directly from the edge and into IT systems using protocols and technologies the IoT natively understands significantly decreases the operators’ time to insight, allowing them to operate their turbines with the lowest cost possible while maximizing revenue generation opportunities.

This is the IoT. It’s the adding of sensors and control to operational assets that were never designed to communicate with IT assets. Edge computing with devices like PACs is the key to bridging the gap between the physical world of operations assets and the digital world of information technology.

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