Power Generators in the Cloud
Most power generators are remote by nature. Wind turbines are placed where it’s windy, solar panels where it’s sunny, and backup generators on sites which require constant power. Consequently, monitoring and controlling a park of scattered power generators can be an arduous task involving numerous service trips and routine checkups. This is nothing new to equipment owners and the concept of remote management has long been a hot topic. However, remote management has often been affiliated with complex solutions requiring major investments and a lot of IT expertise. Through the emergence of cloud computing, there is an easier way to get better control and generate substantial savings.
The term cloud computing simply refers to the Internet. It comes from the way it is depicted graphically, typically as a cloud diagram. One typical application is software as a service (SaaS) to deliver software applications via a standard web browser. This means that software such as general office desktop applications and associated data are not resident on your PC, but are hosted remotely and accessed over the Internet using a web browser. It uses a different business model, where you don’t buy the software and server hardware, but rather lease it, paying only when you use it, or by the volume of data stored. The benefit is that you can remotely access all your files as from any computer, phone or other device with Internet access.
Applied to power generation
The core functionality of any power generator is that it should run whenever it is needed. However, with geographically widely spread equipment, it can be hard to check the status of each unit. By remotely keeping track of parameters such as fuel levels, battery status, oil pressure, and so forth, engineers can improve up-time and reduce maintenance costs. A simple solution may be to add a web server to your generator in order to view the data via the internet, although this can leave the machinery vulnerable to hackers. However, by using the SaaS model delivered over the cloud, risks and vulnerabilities are reduced.
There are three main elements to any cloud-based remote monitoring solution. The first is the physical layer that provides a communication gateway that links to the generator’s control panel. The gateway acquires data such as fuel levels, generator status, or battery voltage and communicates this to a central server. The second element is the server that collects and stores the data, and the third is secure access to the data through a dashboard in a standard web browser.
Connecting the generator
The connection between the communication gateway and the power generator is made via the generator’s control panel, generally through serial communications or by using a popular open protocol such as Modbus RTU. Additional functionalities such as global positioning systems (GPS) are available to meet the demands for location based services (LBS) like tracking and geo-fencing (providing notification when a tracked device enters or leaves a predetermined geographical location).
To communicate with the server, gateways generally use either quad-band GSM/GPRS wireless technologies or Ethernet TCP/IP connections: both may be used concurrently on the same installation. GSM (global systems for mobile communications) is the most widely used technology for mobile communications, whereas GPRS (general packet radio service) is a newer function integrated into GSM that allows for the simultaneous transmission of high speed data across a mobile telephone network. The costs for data-only transmissions using GPRS are significantly lower than for voice calls.
Where the communication gateways use Ethernet-based connectivity it is normally via wide/local area networks (WAN/LAN) with direct connection to the server via the Internet.
Information on the server is viewed using a standard web browser. Modern remote management systems include dashboard functions with gages, meters, indicators, etc., which make it possible to get a quick overview of all parameters in a visual layout. Access to the server information means that users can log historical data and produce graphical trends or diagnostics, manage alarms, or automatically backup or restore remote configurations. Server data can also be accessed by a user’s own ERP system for further analysis and reporting.
What users say
The innate remoteness of the power generator business has motivated an early interest in remote management. One example is Irish-based Cinergy, a company in the Delmec Group, offering power systems for the telecom industry. Their "Wind Tower" is a combined wind turbine and telecommunications antenna making the base station practically self-supporting when it comes to energy. After testing a number of systems where Cinergy was using its own local server, it found a cloud-based solution from HMS Industrial Networks called Netbiter. Cinergy general manager Andrew Griffin explained, "We have made substantial savings since we now have a reduced need for remote servers, faster and easier dashboard development, and an all-in-one hardware solution."
Another example is Scanpower, a Swedish company which sets up and maintains backup power generators for the Swedish internet backbone. “The Netbiter solution has given us a possibility to have an overview of the generators in the field,” says Marcus Ahlström at Scanpower. “We now have full control over all parameters needed to make sure the power generators can start whenever necessary.”
How to get started
The main upside of cloud-based remote management is its simplicity. Since the solutions include preconfigured secure connections from the gateway to the server and ready-made dashboards on the web, the main concern is connecting the communication gateway to the generator and deciding what to monitor. Once that is place, you are ready to go. So if you are looking for a remote monitoring solution for power generators, maybe you should get your head in the clouds.
Henrik Arleving is product line manager, remote management for HMS Industrial Networks.
HMS Industrial Networks is a CSIA member as of 3/5/2015