The Device Chronicle interviews IoT leader Sebastian Waldenström from Vattenfall, who is working to make the best digital tools available through the Item platform to address the needs of the company’s asset operators and renewable energy asset management.
In a large organization such as Vattenfall, new projects are starting up all of the time and a tremendous agility is needed to provide the right digital toolsets to help these projects get off the ground successfully. Sebastian leads an IoT and energy management platform called Item within Vattenfall that helps with just this and renewable energy asset management.
Sebastian describes the Item platform as a “toolbox” for the different business units within Vattenfall to pick and choose from when they have a need to digitize their assets. This could involve connecting their assets with sensors or more data and then processing the data. Security and standardization are key pillars of the Item platform. “Our intention is to expand the capabilities much further. Digital solutions should be off the shelf, plug and play for a business unit rather than having to start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper.”
Grand challenge in renewable energy asset management
With a background in strategy and business development, Sebastian leads the Item platform with the goal of using digital technology to help Vattenfall address a bigger challenge. This bigger challenge is supporting and accelerating the transition from gas and coal-fired power production to more sustainable, clean energies such as solar, hydro and wind power. He observes “There has been a huge increase in electricity demand due to many factors including increase in EV transportation, increasingly electrified industrial processes and the proliferation and growth in data centers. There is a volatile situation where it’s hard to match the power that is being produced by wind with the resilience of supply that is expected by industrial sites, and consumer expectation that energy will be available as they need it.”
Need for digitalisation for renewable energy asset management
Matching is optimised through digitisation in renewable energy asset management. “Naturally, you cannot have people making decisions on a manual basis about energy matching. So the only way to make it work is to automate the process by digitising the assets.” This entails connecting and digitizing the customer base – both large and small customers. Sebastian adds “You must digitise and innovate without compromising on the experience and comfort of the customers. The innovation must improve the customer experience. It is also vitally important to enable flexibility in energy management for the customers. You are required to maintain and increase the comfort and also monetize by creating an incentive to change behavior.”
Matching experts in AI to Mechanical in renewable energy asset management
Sebastian describes a big challenge in AI adoption in digital energy management: The professionals who are the experts in neural networks, vision or machine learning models are not typically the same people who are experts in operating a wind farm or other energy generation assets out in the field. The latter are mechanical and know the details of such things as how a turbine operates. Sebastian believes that you need to bring these diverse experts together. He has a mission to make applications from neural networks and machine learning “drag and drop” so it becomes much easier to make these tools available for decision support in the field. “There are so many examples of where you put the data scientists in the lead. They crunch a lot of data but unfortunately, their analytical conclusions could be very obvious to experienced mechanical experts without actually bringing a truly helpful insight to them. We need to push those tools in the hands of the actual people who have experience in the field so we need to make those awesome machine learning tools and that we need to make them very accessible to the people who know the assets.”
Condition monitoring makes sense
Vattanfall is relatively advanced when it comes to the application of machine learning. Sebastian describes predictive maintenance as something of a Holy Grail. Condition-based maintenance is where it is at right now and makes sense in the energy sector as physical field assets have components that are fairly robust designed to last for 20 years and longer. The time to component failure could be very long. Which means in turn that building up a model in order to predict that something could happen requires the build up of historical data over a long time span. The adoption of predictive maintenance will be gradual and will come over time. Sebastian also believes that suppliers rather than the primary energy providers, may develop those models as services in the same way as they supply components today.
Use cases for IoT device management in renewable energy asset management
The core value of IoT is not having to go on site. This is the ability to be able to create a remote connection to a far away asset. This brings robustness where “the operator never needs to go on-site to an asset unless you have discovered an issue that requires them to go there.” It is also very important to be able to maintain the connection to the assets, often in an environment of cellular connectivity such as LTE CAT 4 with the risks of weak connectivity and possible breaks in the connectivity.
For this reason, OTA software updates, such as those provided by Mender.io, are used to connect to the field devices and delta updates are delivered to address the constrained connectivity environment. Sebastian says that OTA software updates are tested in the lab rigorously before they are moved out into production.
Compendium of IoT use cases
Sebastian explains that there are at least two to three different types of use cases that require IoT capabilities.
The first type is to improve the operation of assets such as transformer stations or key parts of a hydro power plant with improved visibility into key signals, avoiding what Sebastian terms as a “blind” scenario. “We don’t know the temperature, we don’t know the vibration, we don’t know the power quality.” Now with remote maintenance enabled through IoT, operators can detect issues that might emanate from a change in the data signal.
The second use case type focuses on acquiring the data from the assets in the field and extracting insights for dashboards the operators can use for decision support. Sebastian points out that “Only the operators as the domain experts can really draw out meaningful conclusions of what is going on with assets. For example, what does this change in pressure mean?” Sebastian describes the digital platform team as “enablers” by providing the infrastructure for data insights. The operators must be the ones to draw meaningful conclusions out of the data. For the digital platform team, if the pressure is high or the pressure is low, it means that the data process and signalling is working. The data flow is there. The Item team focuses on improving digital capabilities for monitoring more data, and making data acquisition less expensive. “We want to find cost effective ways to use digital to optimize the work of the operators.”
Thirdly, there are the use cases that concern applying algorithms, and for automating the control of small and large assets. Sebastian describes the scale effects and their benefits. He says “If you can solve the challenges for the larger assets, then you can easily port the same solutions over to the smaller assets. For example, there are great similarities between the architectures of large scale battery systems and small EV charging systems.”
Cybersecurity is a top priority
When it comes to addressing cybersecurity concerns, the protocol and review process at Vattenfall sets a high bar for compliance. Sebastian and the Item platform group leverages the independent, expert and objective support of a separate IT security team. Sebastian finds having this resource very reassuring to his work. “As a manager, having this resource available is something that allows me to sleep well at night.” This security team performs penetration tests on the infrastructure, where third party professional hackers and security companies try to hack in and exploit vulnerabilities. This is a good process in place with strong security architects and then do penetration tests to verify that the solution works. In the end, it needs to be secure enough for someone to rather go somewhere else and hack someone else’s system rather than hack our systems.”
We wish Sebastian and the Item digital platform team well as they continue to work to bring the benefits of digital to the business units across Vattenfall.