How the right insights, in the right places, can leverage intelligence to uncover new possibilities  

Brandon Carlson, Director of Product Marketing, Water and Gas Network Solutions at Itron, joins Energy, Oil & Gas to share his industry insight. “I graduated from college back in 95, so I’m one of the younger folks here,” he begins. “I started my career at Hewlett Packard in research and development as an electrical engineer. As such, my background is mostly in the technical side of operations. I spent 15 years with Hewlett Packard, predominantly in the telecommunication space where we built wireless communications and test equipment for the cell phone industry. During that time, I got my Master of Science in Management Science and Engineering from Stanford University, which really gave me a good mix of both the operational and technical side of business.

“That helped set me up for my transition, in 2011, to a management position with Itron. After a couple of years, I started directing our battery powered solutions, by which I mean our gas and water network solutions, and I’ve been in the product management marketing side of the business for just over 12 years. Having a good technical grounding helps to guide strategy and decision-making, in terms of investment, trending technology, and practical innovation to apply in our space,” he continues.

Itron enables utilities and cities to safely, securely and reliably deliver critical infrastructure solutions to communities in more than 100 countries. Its portfolio of smart networks, software, services, meters, and sensors helps customers better manage electricity, gas and water resources for consumers. Brandon leads the Water and Gas line, focusing on expanding the business value that utilities can achieve through the adoption of standards based IoT networking platforms. Drawing from his expertise in wireless communications, he is focused on helping clients develop their technology strategies to address the most pressing challenges with safety, operational efficiency, and pipeline integrity. Itron’s devices, networks, software, and services have all been proven at scale and in some of the least hospitable environments on earth.

“The metering aspect of the business is what gave Itron much of its grounding, in terms of automating the communications modules on electric, gas, and water meters. As we’ve matured in the sector, data collection has moved away from walk- or drive-by to connected networking platforms. We’re a global company with over 8000 customers, operating on every continent except Antarctica. We now deploy communication systems to gather not just meter data but much of the IoT capability for intelligently connected metering system solutions,” Brandon explains.

“I would say that until recently most people have taken the consistent and reliable supply of electricity for granted, from heating or cooling their homes to turning on the light switch. Now that the importance of vehicle electrification has come to the fore, there’s additional pressure on the grid; a pressure that can’t necessarily be forecast as it isn’t always predictable when people are going to be plugging in. Most grids were built close to 100 years ago, without envisioning the potential extent of demand.

“Something that the electric utilities are trying to build into their networks now is demand response and managing usage so that the grid isn’t overwhelmed at peak times. If the capacity isn’t there, people’s choices surrounding the adoption of technology, such as electric vehicles, will be swayed by convenience. My brother, for example, lives in an apartment complex in California and recently bought a Tesla, which he was able to charge on site with no problem. That was until his neighbor also purchased an electric vehicle and the breaker blew. The management subsequently suggested that they arranged to charge their vehicles at different times of the day, which went smoothly until another neighbor purchased an electric vehicle, the same problem occurred, and the management eventually disallowed electric vehicle charging in the complex. As an end consumer, it’s incredibly inconvenient not to be able to charge a vehicle at home.

“Consumers need to be conscious of the impact of their purchasing decisions in much the same way that utility companies are trying to figure out how to balance load. We are now able to offer utilities insight into how transformers are loaded and alert them of an overload situation that could be a fire or safety issue, alongside providing data that could be used to assist with distribution network stabilization,” he explains.

“We offer an IoT network for our utilities and smart cities with multiple points that connect to electric meters to form a resilient network. There’s then the ability to upscale that and add in other devices. A key approach for us has been working on our mesh network and being able to provide an interface for third parties, so that they can join that network. As we think about some of the applications beyond metering, streetlights have been a huge one. From there, we’re adding other applications through various partnerships, looking at smart parking, vehicle numbers, and digital signage for example, with the view that cities will be able to message their stakeholders about what may be happening in the city, from air quality monitoring to gunshot detection for safety measures.”

Proactive applications
Indeed, advances in communication systems are only set to continue. People are used to having a constant stream of information at their fingertips. “It’s a similar situation for us. 5G technology is helping to deliver data to the utilities and smart cities at a faster rate, enabling new applications. Our aim is to ensure these modalities of communication complement each other to maximize coverage and enable as many use cases as possible, considering utilities are spread across rural areas as well as dense urbanizations.

“We need multiple communication vehicles to be able to deliver the insights needed. As more energy sources, such as wind and solar, are being brought into the mix, more real time insight into supply and demand and behaviors is required. The more efficient utilities can be, the higher the quality of service they can deliver.

“If we look at technology capabilities and how best to implement artificial intelligence, the aim would be to be proactive rather than reactive. Generally, if a water pipe bursts, someone is sent to fix the leak. Now, software is coming online that can analyze decades of collected data to make operational predictions. Based on temperature and soil conditions, for example, AI can make predictions to inform operators of weaknesses and the most likely area for a leak to occur and when. It’s intriguing how accurate it can be.”

Advancing the industry
Looking to the future for Itron and the wider industry, Brandon is excited about how this information can be maximized to ensure the reliable and safe delivery of energy and water, enhance consumer engagement, as well as the support of utilities and smart cities.

“Given my communication background, I also love seeing how we’re able to exploit the advancements to give maximum coverage and minimal latency to advance this industry even further. It amazes me that we can deliver a cellular communicating device that’s expected to last 20 years in the field, when my phone battery barely lasts two or three days on a single charge. More globally, as we look at energy sources and try to figure out the right balance and solve the problems surrounding cleaner fuel, while there’s still a lot yet to come to maturity in that space, I’m excited about supporting greenhouse gas reduction and clean carbon initiatives.

“I love the fact that the industry has set aggressive goals, particularly concerning EVs, but that has some sweeping implications on the grid and I’m keen to see how that’s going to be resolved collectively. This extends to energy storage too and how solar or wind energy, for example, can be stored effectively. This is where innovation comes into its own,” he concludes. “We need to innovate to figure out the solutions, and regulation is driving us towards that.”