Detecting Power Theft by Sensors and the Cloud: Awesense Smart System for the Grid

A couple of realities have hit the electrical industry hard. First, the megastorm Hurricane Sandy hammered coastal towns and cities, such as New York and Boston, exposing the vulnerabilities of their aging infrastructure, from passive, dumb grid and fragile power lines, to transformers and power stations. Couple the degradation of power distribution with a nor'easter a month later, and Boston announced that it's looking into burying its electrical lines underground to harden them against future storms.

The second issue, one that deals with the transformation of how power is generated and distributed has reduced energy cost to a point that it has finally put pressure on the low margin industry. In a report conducted by the Edison Electrical Institute (EEI): The cost of power generation from solar PV, wind, geothermal, micro-hydro, and fuel cells running on natural gas has been dropping dramatically.

The falling prices of distributed generation are impacting an industry that "directly threatens its centralized utility model." In other words, investor-owned utilities, which "serve about 70% of the U.S. population," are facing their first major challenge since Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison duked it out over AC or DC power more than a century ago.

An industry that's regulated only to supply juice to its customers and regions--not to upgrade its aging systems--is facing a crisis. That's what happens when the utilities have deferred maintenance for decades, squeezing the last watts of power out of each soon-to-fail grid system. If those were the utilities only problems the power producers might find its way through the ROI and new technology squeeze.

But add to those serious threats the "silent crime" of power theft, an annual multi-billion write-off to the utilities, and the challenges become that much more acute and symptomatic of an industry not adapting to changing times.

One Vancouver startup Awesense, founded by its CEO Mischa Steiner-Jovic in 2009, has built and now rolled out an end-to-end solution to identify power theft and loss.

Awesense, Covert and Effective
In speaking with CEO Mischa Steiner-Jovic via a telephone interview, he stated, "Our mission is to help utility companies with energy loss in their grid and distribution of the grid, while improve the most inefficient systems for customers of all sizes. We have developed both the sensors to detect energy loss, as well as mobile-cloud software. We started with one utility company in British Columbia to work on the system, tailor it, iron out the bugs, and built it up to a commercial offering before we went to other utilities with a beta version a year and a half ago."

One of Awesense's value-ads--'Find Power Theft'--is "part of two camps of energy losses," Steiner-Jovic began to explain. "The first are technical losses, due to failing and degrading infrastructure, the non-peak performance of aging equipment. But then there are the non-technical losses. They include unpaid bills, ghost customers, poor accounting, power theft bypass that goes around the meters. And if meters can't measure, then they can't report, or charge customers."

From the EEI study, it stated: The cheapest watt is the one you don't have to generate, and the most expensive watt (for fossil-fueled power) is the one that has to be generated at peak times.

So having customers, from homeowners to businesses and industries bypass paying energy bills fits the criteria of the "cheapest watt." CEO Steiner-Jovic added, "The quickest (and cheapest) ROI for utilities is to find energy loss to solve the non-technical losses."

Yes, there's a need to upgrade and harden equipment and power lines. But preventing power theft will "create a lot of savings," Awesense CEO said.

How Awesense's End-to-End Solution Works
Awesense began its journey by studying utilities' historical data to identify the problem of energy loss and confirm power theft and inefficiencies in the transmission lines. But to develop better energy audits, Awesense had to design more than a cloud-based software. It had to get its hands on the actual data. And for power distribution there is only one place that happens: in the field.

So the company designed an oversize clothespin-like device called the "SenseNET Monitor"
that clips onto a power line from the ground. With a portable device and two minutes, Awesense can identify gaps in and problems with power distribution. "We do it by cordoning off sections of the grid. And then figuring what are the devices used to send power and what are they billing? The difference between the two tells the story of power theft or loss," Steiner-Jovic said.

"How big is the problem of power theft?" I asked.

"Sixteen billion a year in the United States and over $200 billion worldwide annually. In the U.S., the loss is a range between 8-12 percent. That tells us we know there's a problem. In Brazil it's 30 percent, which is a significant problem," he said. "Now when you go to India or Pakistan, power loss is on the order of thirty, forty, fifty percent. Then you have a socioeconomic problem with large areas and pockets where people are siphoning off a great amount of energy."

With security being of paramount concern for its customers and covertness to secretly identify the "silent crime" perpetrators, the clamp-sensor name SenseNET Monitor was a good fit and ties in nicely with the company's SenseNET end-to-end solution.

In asking about when SenseNET would be deployed after a major storm with down lines and disrupted or blacked-out power, Steiner-Jovic said, "Awesense's system is used several days after a major storm for energy analysis. The utility companies know what to do. It begins with the linemen's job to restore the system, get the power flowing again. Once that is achieved, SenseNET can be used for energy flow comparing the energy balancing after a storm with historical levels prior to an event."

Power Theft as Safety Hazard
Perhaps another unknown issue about power theft is the safety issues it proposes for the utility workers and people in general. Mr. Steiner-Jovic voiced his concern about when people bypass power lines and meters they do it in a haphazard way that puts workers lives at risk. "The line layouts change or when one becomes de-energized it's a problem and a danger. Redirecting power with live lines can also become a fire hazard. Fire is a significant problem using high voltage loads in areas of low voltage. That puts first responders in harm's way. And at times, it can overload the system," he said.

The Awesense CEO went on to explain that the SenseNET Monitor was developed in concert with the certified electrical journeymen. "We wanted the field team to be directly involved with the design of the SenseNET Monitor, so that when they start to use it in the field they know exactly how to use it." Call that a flat learning curve with most of the training done by Awesense to focus on 'best practices.'

In telling the Awesense story, Mischa Steiner-Jovic sees the competition as stiff for the manufacturing of grid-line sensors and heavy enough for cloud software to analyze the field data of power distribution. But he hasn't seen a truly end-to-end solution, a company like Awesense that develops the hardware in the sensor SenseNET Monitor and the software with the field mobile capabilities in one company.

With commercial customers on six of the seven continents of the world, Awesense appears to be leading the charge of delivery ROI to its customers by means of recouping the "cheapest watt" of power.