IoT Blog
IoT Blog

Utilities and Electric Co-Ops Like Pierce Pepin Use the IoT to Realize Cost Reduction, Reliability and Worker Safety Goals

In the face of tight budgets and customer demands for better service and cleaner energy, both investor owned utilities and electric co-ops, are turning to the Internet of Things (IoT) to help them meet cost reduction goals, increase customer engagement, improve worker safety and make the electricity they deliver more reliable and environmentally sustainable.

For example, utilities are using new IoT predictive maintenance applications to connect to transformers and other grid equipment to reduce equipment failures that can lead to outages. In addition, many utilities have deployed IoT-enabled smart meters that collect and transmit detailed information on customer usage. Utilities can use this data to detect and resolve potential customer problems without truck rolls. They can also use to it generate insights on future energy demand, allowing them to optimize electricity generation and distribution. 

Utilities are also using IoT to increase customer engagement in ways that also help them reduce costs and improve the dependability and sustainability of their energy services. For example, some utilities are promoting the use of smart thermostats and other devices for IoT energy management applications that reward consumers if they opt into programs that automatically reduce their energy consumption during periods of peak energy demand. These programs not only enable utilities to increase customer engagement and better maintain grid stability, but also help them avoid the use of expensive peaking plants, lowering their expenses and greenhouse gas emissions.

Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services Embraces the IoT

Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services, a western Wisconsin electric distribution cooperative comprising 20 co-op members, provides an example of how utilities are using the IoT today. The rural community cooperative, which serves more than 7,665 members and manages approximately 1,332 miles of electric distribution lines, embarked on their IoT project to address many of the same safety, reliability and cost challenges faced by other utilities around the world. 

For example, in the event of a power outage, Pierce Pepin wanted to improve its ability to restore power as quickly as possible. The electric co-op also wanted to provide trucks and linemen with real-time information to ensure optimal operation, system reliability, and co-op member and customer satisfaction. Another goal was to improve crew safety and dispatch operations while delivering cost savings. 

To meet these challenges the co-op wanted to use IoT to enhance its vehicle communications capabilities by enabling new functionality that would allow them to increase worker safety while also making it easier and faster for them to track field vehicles, especially during outage events.

A Sierra Wireless IoT-Powered Vehicle Communications System

As described in the Pierce Pepin case study, Pierce Pepin turned to Sierra Wireless partner Clevest to help it install GPS-equipped 4G LTE Wi-Fi mobile routers in its 15 heavy-duty vehicles. Using these routers and Sierra Wireless software solutions, Pierce Pepin created a computer-aided dispatch and automated vehicle location (CAD/AVL) platform. This platform has improved communications, ensuring dispatch can always see the position and status of every vehicle. 

The platform includes the following Sierra Wireless cellular networking solutions: 
  • AirLink® Management Service (ALMS) – The Sierra Wireless ALMS is a secure, centralized, cloud-based network and asset management solution that enables simple, consistent management of IoT devices. The service is designed for both fixed and mobile deployments and supports over-the-air registration, configuration and updates for the complete portfolio of Sierra Wireless AirLink routers and gateways. Organizations can remotely monitor and manage multiple variables, including signal strength, network technology and location, to help maintain connectivity. Dashboards display up-to-date views of their entire deployment, and custom alerts can be set up to monitor and report critical events, increase efficiency and prevent downtime. 
  • Airlink RV55 LTE-A Pro router – The rugged, secure Sierra Wireless Airlink RV55 LTE-A Pro router delivers resilient, mission-critical 4G LTE cellular communications for in-vehicle applications. It provides consolidated device-to-enterprise data security for mission-critical applications and other mobile assets in the vehicle area network (VAN). The RV55 also provides out-of-box connectivity to existing legacy or new assets, with built-in dual-serial port, ethernet, and I/O to reduce cost and complexity. A low-power, rugged and compact form-factor makes it easy to integrate into existing installations where space and power may be limited. For this deployment, Pierce Pepin added optional Dual Band Wi-Fi capabilities to these routers to enable the vehicles to connect to its secure Wi-Fi network where available. 

The IoT Delivers Electric Co-Op Cost Savings, Better Response Times and Improved Worker Safety

The Sierra Wireless IoT-powered vehicle communications system has delivered cost savings to Pierce Pepin co-op members by streamlining dispatch logistics— including seeing the location of all trucks in real time—increasing the efficiency of emergency system repairs. The first year it saved more than $800,000 across the 20 participating co-ops, and the average annual recurring cost savings per co-op was $3,100. The members also reduced legal and procedural costs thanks to increased accountability, and the enhanced two-way field-to-office communications enabled new after-hours response capabilities, helping Pierce Pepin improve its ability to reliably deliver electricity to customers. 

The platform also enables Pierce Pepin to easily create new apps that deliver functional enhancements to field personnel. One such app monitors a truck’s bucket position and how long it’s been held there. This app allows headquarters to determine if a bucket has been elevated for an unusual period of time, which might indicate a worker is in danger. With information like this, the co-op can help keep its crews safer. 

Given the cost reduction and other benefits Pierce Pepin has already gained from its IoT deployment, the co-op is looking forward to expanding its capabilities. This may include deploying new IoT applications that can take advantage of the in-vehicle router to collect and monitor other types of vehicle data, such as mileage, engine hours and real-time mechanical diagnostics.

Are you a utility looking for ways to use IoT to realize cost savings while improving electricity reliability and worker safety? Be sure to Start with Sierra to understand how the IoT can enable you to re-imaging your operations to reach these goals.