Utilities Survey Results Underscores IoT Solutions for Extreme Weather

Published: March 6, 2024

Wi-SUN Alliance’s survey of utility decision makers found resiliency and response to weather-based outages are top of mind

Utility companies this year are focused on minimizing outages in extreme weather as well as responding to outage events quickly. And they are looking at IoT technology as one of the tools to accomplish that.

The Wi-SUN Alliance has completed research into utilities and power sector trends, finding that in addition to building up intelligence to combat climate change fueled events, initiatives are underway to improve cybersecurity and connectivity for utility IoT systems.

The Wi-SUN Alliance is a global association that specifies open standards-based, interoperable technology solutions for IoT solutions for smart utilities and cities. Wi-SUN (wireless smart utility network) communication systems comply with the IEEE 802-15.4G standard and serve as an alternative to other IoT technologies such as LoRa and NB-IoT.

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Survey Addresses Climate Challenges

Based on the survey results, the alliance confirmed what many members had believed: energy and utility companies are interested in IoT technologies to help improve customers service and control costs in the face of extreme weather event.

In fact, extreme weather conditions have been on the rise and power outages have doubled in the U.S. over the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The Wi-SUN Alliance research, conducted in February 2024, included 250 senior level professionals within the U.S. utility and power industry who work in IT, operations and production.

Weather Prediction Tops Reported Initiatives

In the survey, 41 percent of respondents indicated that advance weather prediction was going to be at the top of their priorities to improve network resilience.

Nearly as many said renewable energy integration was key, followed by grid modernization and microgrids at 39 percent, and disaster response and recovery plans at 34 percent.

When asked what initiatives they were undertaking to ensure network infrastructure resiliency against the impacts of climate change, the majority responded that they were investing in advanced weather prediction tools, said Phil Beecher, Wi-SUN Alliance’s CEO and president.

A Shift in Focus for 2024 Utilities Survey

This is the second survey provided by the Wi-SUN Alliance. The group commissioned a survey from Censuswide in January 2023 to poll decision makers within U.S. utilities about changes in the industry, including the IoT technology developments predicted within the following 12 months, Beecher said. That 2023 survey found energy security was the priority for IoT technology use.

This year, Censuswide survey centered around how companies are investigating or installing IoT solutions to address the increase in extreme weather events, particularly the cost and disruption due to outages.

“We wanted to get more clarity about how utilities are prioritizing weather-related initiatives,” Beecher explained.

The study also examined investment in cybersecurity for utility companies looking to enhance interoperability and connectivity for large-scale IoT applications in smart utility projects.

Solutions Provided by IoT

Utilities can use IoT technologies to proactively monitor systems and equipment, reduce maintenance costs, and make the necessary repairs or replacements before problems occur. It provides continuity of service for their customers as well, said Beecher.

Data from IoT systems can help utilities plan ahead in the face of turbulent weather. For example, if a water utility knows that flooding is likely in a specific area, they can use advanced tools to identify areas with excessive runoff and allow for adjustments to storm and flood water infrastructure to compensate for changing volumes of water. They can store excess water for use in drought-ridden areas.

Smart city deployments have an important part to play with regard to preparing for weather, as well, Beecher pointed out.

Cities can leverage smart street lighting networks to scale their wireless communications network by adding environmental and weather monitoring devices or sensors to predict extreme conditions before they happen.

Renewable Energy and Smart Grids

For renewable energy integration and grid modernization, IoT is already being used for applications like real-time monitoring, predictive maintenance or management, and enhanced grid management.

For instance, IoT technology could allow a solar farm operator to monitor each panel and then tilt or rotate that panel to either collect more or less sun to keep optimal output. IoT can enable them to wirelessly monitor panels and schedule proactive maintenance, or switch the load to different panels to prevent downtime.

Outage Recovery

Recovering from a power outage is one of the priorities for utilities.

“To say that they are dealing with people’s lives is not an overstatement,” said Beecher, “Monitoring and maintenance are important ways that IoT technology can help utilities better manage a disaster.”

By knowing what’s happening with their equipment and adjusting as needed, they can avoid problems down the line.

In the case of a wildfire-caused outage, the utility can use IoT-based data to identify not only where the outage is taking place, but also what devices are affected. They can direct maintenance teams to exact locations quickly and efficiently, while providing up-to-date critical information to their customers in real time.

“It’s important to note that utility companies need to feel confident that the wireless communications network they are running IoT devices on is robust, reliable and resilient in the face of an emergency,” Beecher said.

For that reason, interoperability of devices, avoiding vendor lock-in, and built-in enterprise-grade security protocols to prevent against cyber-attacks or other malicious activity, are also critical.

Confirming Priorities for Wi-SUN Alliance

The survey results serve as a validation of many trends the alliance members were already identifying, Beecher said.

“We have seen the impact of climate change in the past 10 years, and many of us have experienced the pain of an unforeseen power outage or flood,” he said.

As a global industry body, Wi-SUN Alliance has been discussing issues like stormwater management and integration of renewables—and the role that smart technology programs can play for many years.

AI Intersection

The survey identified opportunities to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) as part of a utility company’s smart network infrastructure. That will require effective and accurate IoT data.

“Utilities that plan to incorporate AI need to understand that their AI is only as good as the data source they use, making the choice of IoT network critical,” said Beecher.

Wi-SUN Alliance member companies are already aware of their utility customers’ challenges and needs, Beecher added, and the survey “supports much of what they already know: that IoT initiatives—based on a robust wireless communications network—can make a difference to their business and to their customers.”

Key Takeaways:
  • Wi-SUN Alliance’s utilities survey confirms that power and utility companies are focusing on resiliency and response to extreme weather and are looking to IoT technology for solutions.
  • The respondents of the January survey also indicated interest in cybersecurity improvements and grid modernization.