Posted on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 by Bjarne Sig Halkjær
How do you evaluate the condition of the underground pipes that make up your distribution network? A Danish utility validated their renovation effort in a specific area based on Heat Intelligence and found the hidden cause for a service pipe with an unexpectedly high heat loss.
In the coming years, district heating in the Netherlands is expected to see significant growth due to the plans to phase-out natural gas by 2050. A central challenge for utilities will therefore be to utilise and expand their networks as efficiently as possible while making sure district heating remains competitive and an attractive choice for Dutch end users at the same time.
Smart metering is a fundamental part of the solution because, with frequent readings and the right tools, smart meter data can provide network transparency and be turned into actionable knowledge. However, for most utilities smart metering is a step-by-step journey. This makes it crucial that they choose a solution they can build on as their needs change and they achieve new insights along the way. Energy company Duurzame Energie Veenendaal-Oost (DEVO) did exactly that.
From drive-by to network reading
DEVO’s first step was implementing smart heat meters and a simple drive-by solution in their new residential area with more than 1,000 houses. “We chose the drive-by solution in 2010, based on the simplicity of the meter reading system. But in 2016, we did an analysis and found that it would be more efficient for us to move to fixed network reading”, says director of DEVO, René Prop.
The main driver for DEVO’s upgrade was being able to drastically improve the efficiency of their meter reading as well as getting hourly values from all meters, which would significantly enhance the quality of their data analysis.
“Quarterly readings meant we only discovered errors on a quarterly basis, which again meant that our workload was bunched together. With more frequent data we discover things faster, meaning we can act faster and fix minor issues before they turn into big problems”.
DEVO quickly saw significant improvements on both their operations and customer relations.
Improved system efficiency
increased amount of meter data has given DEVO a better understanding of their
system. “Hourly values give us much more insight into the flow in our system
and based on that new knowledge we have already made a number of corrections
that have improved our overall system efficiency”, says René Prop. One specific
example of data-based value creation was DEVO’s detection of faulty or
misadjusted valves in their combined heating and cooling system.
René Prop explains that frequent data also help the company optimise their distribution: “We have been able to change several valves to optimise the pressure in different areas so that we produce heat more efficiently, but still deliver the same amount of heat to our customers”.
Enhanced end-user engagement
Frequent meter data has also enabled DEVO to become more proactive in how they approach their customers. “We monitor our system closely so whenever we spot irregularities we can quickly find the cause and notify our customers – often before they themselves realise something is wrong”, explains René Prop.
Going forward, DEVO plans to focus even more on engaging their customers and consequently helping them save both energy and money: “We will be implementing an online system where our customers have access to their own data. This will give them insight into their consumption patterns, so they can take responsibility for changing them”.
This effort directly addresses the challenge for convincing consumers to give up their free choice of supplier to be part of a collective system based on an efficient and sustainable energy source”. The environment is one thing, but in our experience, people also want to avoid the hassle of an individual heating solution and of course a key incentive is their wallets”.
Needs before technology
There was nothing coincidental about DEVO’s choice of communication technology. “We deliberately chose a solution that was dedicated to our needs and based on a proven technology – that was key for us. Smart city systems are not always based on proven technology and there are many different stakeholders involved. We don’t need to be able to steer traffic lights with our system. Our number one priority is our customers”.
As DEVO upgraded to fixed network meter reading and the newest radio technology at the same time, they had to change the communication modules in their meters. Nevertheless, René Prop expects that the additional investment of going from basic to frequent and intelligent meter reading will have paid for itself in three years’ time: “We did a test with five to ten houses and everybody was happy with the result. We then had to change the communication modules but that was a 5-minute job and we had to go into the houses anyway. The whole area could be covered with just three antennas, so financially it was a no brainer for us”.
Analytics and beyond
By 2025, DEVO’s supply area is expected to hold 3,000 houses compared to 1,150 today and with more and more houses connected, knowing the exact network performance will only become increasingly relevant. DEVO is therefore preparing to continue their journey up the smart metering value chain with innovative analytics enabling data-driven optimisation in a more efficient and cost-effective way.
René Prop sees great potential regarding future investments in the design and planning of DEVO’s distribution network: “With the information we have from the existing system, the engineering companies we work with will have a much better basis for designing our future system”.
To him, the main benefit from digitalisation is clear: “More than anything else, digitalisation gives us speed. Instant knowledge. And the faster we learn, the better we can perform”.
Today’s choices define tomorrow’s options
where you want to end up is one thing. Knowing how to get there is another. But
rather than fixing your gaze on the destination, focus should always be on the
next step. For district heating utilities about to invest in the next
generation of metering systems, perhaps the most important thing is therefore
to make sure their choices today will leave all doors open for them further
down the road – while creating as much value as possible each step of the way.
DEVO’s journey is just a great example of that.
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