Jeff St. John| Greentechmedia
Cloud computing is slowly becoming a part of the way that energy companies and utilities manage their core IT needs. But when it comes to shifting critical grid and power generation control systems to the cloud, they’ve been far more cautious, driven by concerns about reliability, security, and the challenge of integrating legacy control systems with a modern, distributed IT architecture.
But for a company that’s building a renewable energy generation fleet from the ground up, cloud computing can offer a lot of benefits. At least, that’s how Bharat Light and Power is looking at its new project with IBM to shift some of its core wind power management tasks to the cloud.
Bharat announced earlier this month that it’s using IBM’s SoftLayer cloud platform for asset management, mobile workforce integration and power generation analytics for its roughly 200-megawatt fleet of wind farms throughout India. Those wind farms are scattered throughout the country, many in remote areas, and present a significant operations and maintenance challenge.
That opens up an opportunity to centralize those tasks in the cloud, Mozhi Habibi, worldwide energy and utilities industry leader for IBM, said in a recent phone interview. Bharat, founded by former head of General Electric’s India business Tejpreet S. Chopra, and backed by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, had already turned to IBM to manage its core IT systems in the cloud, making the transition to a broader set of cloud-based applications a logical next step, she said.
“We were just going to manage their IT systems, not…getting into the business side,” she said. “Then, as we moved forward, we [realized] we could use this same cloud environment for a lot of other things.”
Those include asset management systems for Bharat’s fleet of wind turbines, as well as integrating that flood of data into the mobile handsets used by field workers who maintain those assets, said Habibi. It also includes IBM’s Hybrid Renewable Energy Forecasting (HyRef) technology, a set of big data analytics tools that crunch weather data to forecast wind turbine output.
Bharat wants to expand its renewable portfolio to 1,000 megawatts of wind, solar, biomass and hydropower in the next five years through acquisitions and new projects, and also manage wind farms for other clients. That means that it needs to manage its power delivery contracts with grid operators for the wind farms it owns, as well as create service-level agreements for those it manages, to reduce risk and maximize the return on those investments, she said.
It’s a model that IBM is seeking to replicate with other energy industry cloud computing deployments, said Habibi. “We took one step back and said there’s nothing wrong with trying to sell cloud from an IT perspective. And after we get in and the customer realizes we know what we’re talking about, we can go in on the business side.”
IBM’s middleware provider role means it partners closely with specialists in the energy IT field. That includes companies like ABB’s Ventyx, where Habibi previously worked in the energy operation and analytics fields, as well as Siemens, General Electric and other grid vendors building out cloud-based analytics offerings.
It also means that IBM finds itself partnering with — and competing with — various providers of cloud-based utility offerings at times. In the field of smart meter data management, for example, IBM competes with such providers as Siemens’ eMeter and Oracle in the nascent cloud-delivered meter analytics market.
As for the field of integrating renewable energy into the grid, IBM is involved with a host of projects, including its analytics work developed in Denmark with wind turbine maker Vestas, and the EDISON project on the Danish island of Bornholm, which tested the integration of wind power with plug-in vehicle charging and on-site generation.
India is emerging as a huge new market for technologies to manage the country’s pressing energy needs, which include a need for massive new generation capacity and a grid that’s prone to blackouts and disruptions. At the same time, the country’s plans for smart grid and renewable energy include opportunities to leapfrog the legacy technologies deployed in more developed economies in North America and Europe with new approaches — including cloud computing.