Plant & Works Engineering
Monitoring power pays dividends
Published:  02 January, 2018

Gianluca Fanchini* and Poonam Walid* look at power monitoring and why it is a vital facet of any company’s modus operandi, especially when faced with the multiple negative implications of wasteful consumption.

Electricity is the lifeblood of any organisation, you only need a power cut or major fluctuations in supply to hear the gasps and groans of all those affected, swiftly followed by mass panic as people try to figure out how to continue with their jobs.

But like many commodity products, people tend to exploit power without a second thought as to how they exploit it and, more importantly in this day and age, how they can exploit it more efficiently. It is very easy at your place of work to use it and not even give it a second thought. After all, unless you own the company, you don’t pay the bills.

“This day and age” is the key phrase here, as there are multiple contemporary reasons why you should be looking at your power supply and how to use it more intelligently and efficiently. How you grade the different reasons is down to your specific circumstances but, in no particular order of importance, you should be considering: the environment, safety, maintenance/reliability and, of course, cost. Let’s look at them individually, explore the reasoning behind these factors and then discuss why power monitoring is becoming so vital in modern companies.

Environmental factors have a huge influence on power generation, transmission and consumption. Recent headlines show that the grid suppliers around the world are offering more and more power from renewable sources – with some staggering generation figures coming out of many European countries recently. But these ‘green gains’ can be swiftly annulled by inefficient use of the power they create by the end users.

Every country in the world is subject to international legislation in some way, shape or form – the result of numerous treaties and agreements. These are then enforced and incentivised locally by taxation and reward schemes that promote more efficient use of utilities. So, from a user perspective, it is in your interests to be as efficient as possible in order to gain your green credentials, ISO certificates and bottom-line savings.

By adding monitoring systems to your internal power grid, you gain much better awareness of the infrastructure and, as a result, can define more effective safety policies based on discrete usage examples or factory locales. And with most companies adopting a holistic approach to safety, electrical systems and electrically driven equipment play a huge role in defining proper safety procedures and promote the indirect but positive effect they can have on the bottom line.

Reliability and proactive maintenance procedures live or die on your ability to understand your machines and assets. With seasoned, 20-years-in-the-same-company engineers becoming a thing of the past, organisations are losing the staff that would have had an intimate knowledge and almost tactile understanding of equipment. Instead, they are being replaced with younger, multi-skilled personnel who you may not hang on to for more than a few years. What is more, these newer engineers have cut their teeth in the information age and, as a result, rely more and more on being spoon fed information from smart systems in order to make maintenance decisions and reliability judgements.

Power monitoring can make a massive difference in this instance, as fluctuation or outside-of-the-norm consumption figures can rapidly pinpoint areas of concern and failing electrical assets. Couple these to advanced computer-based monitoring systems and, in the future, AI analysis and you will soon have the ability to detect issues before they are even remotely apparent; even to the most seasoned operator. This data can also be collated, deciphered and used historically, to define shift-, day-, month- and seasonal-based fluctuations, giving the plant managers far greater and far more timely insights into what failures can happen and what can be done to prevent them from occurring.

This data based foresight then defines and supports your proactive maintenance strategy and allows you to replace or service assets well in advance, or even redesign certain aspects of your operations or machines to prevent the issues reoccurring. In all cases, advance warning and a proactive approach support the stitch-in-time philosophy and give you the ability to counter huge reactive costs, with much lower proactive investment.

Each of the reasons above have one thing in common – they can all save you varying sums of money, which gives us a nice segue into the last factor – cost. Even with renewables playing a greater role in power generation, electricity costs can still be highly volatile and wholesale decreases are very unlikely. Even negotiated rates can be subject to annual incremental rises, so more efficient energy usage is the only real practical way of reducing overall energy expenditure.

In the past, the problem was that energy savings were not normally factored in as a separate entity on the balance sheet. Energy costs certainly were, but they never really provided the impetus to use energy more effectively. With the advent of mission statements, in-house and public-facing environmental policies and the ISO 14000 family of international standards, energy usage, carbon offsets and eco-friendly credentials now play such a huge part in defining the publicly perceived shop window of a company. And in this carbon-footprint driven society, the negative impact of lax environmental credentials on a brand or a company’s goodwill can be truly horrendous.

So, is there an easy way to address all of this? Yes and no. It depends on your stance, what you need to measure and control and then how you exploit the information it gives you. Looking at the negative side of things first, it could well demand significant capital outlay to replace dated and inefficient high-worth assets, with which no amount of energy monitoring will help. This makes business sense for a whole lot of other reasons, not just energy. Indeed, the risk behind the continuous use of obsolete hardware is another topic all in itself.

From the positive side of things there are solutions out there that can give you an incredibly in-depth understanding of your power network and asset consumption, but even these can be daunting in their complexity and the infrastructure changes required. Sometimes simplicity can be the best approach and counter the complexity- and cost-based reluctance to deploy even a modicum of intelligence to a power system. A case in point would be Schneider Electric’s PowerTag devices, which connect to a miniature circuit breaker and provide real-time current, voltage, power, power factor and energy data. This data can then be fed into energy management systems or BMS products, to provide operators with an insight into where and what is consuming energy, when it is being consumed and how it is being consumed.

The knowledge that can be harnessed from the simplest to most complex power monitoring approach can deliver and mould positive remedial, proactive actions, which, in turn, address the primary reasons above. In all cases the ROI is not just financial, it is branding, standing, respect and goodwill, but when all’s said and done a healthier bottom line is still a very good reason.

*Gianluca Fanchini is Industry sector marketing manager at RS Components; Poonam Walid is category marketing manager – Power Solutions at Schneider Electric.