IBM adopts Israeli solution to save ‘lost’ electricity

As much as 20% of power on utility lines goes astray, causing higher prices for consumers. EGM has a solution

IBM executives and members of the first and second groups in the Alpha Zone Accelerator cut a blue ribbon inaugurating the second accelerator class, January 2015  (Courtesy)
IBM executives and members of the first and second groups in the Alpha Zone Accelerator cut a blue ribbon inaugurating the second accelerator class, January 2015 (Courtesy)

From a small start-up just a few weeks ago, Israel’s EGM (Electric Grid Management) is now part of a huge conglomerate – and its technology could help hundreds of millions of people in the US and around the world. A graduate of the IBM Alpha Zone Accelerator’s recently-completed first round, EGM is now part of IBM’s Insights Foundation for Energy solution, an electrical grid management and analytics program that will be offered to electricity utilities as part of IBM’s substantial infrastructure management business.

According to industry experts, utilities lose between 6% and 20% of all the electricity they produce as a result of problems in the distribution lines – losses that are passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. With EGM, IBM believes it can help utilities “rescue” their power before it gets lost, and keep prices down.

IBM doesn’t publish numbers on how many utility companies use its solutions, but its list of case studies is substantial – many of the largest utilities in the US, as well as national utilities in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere use IBM’s products to manage, distribute, meter, and conserve electricity.

As of last week’s Distributech event in San Diego, the utility industry’s biggest annual trade show, EGM’s system is being offered to customers on the IBM network who want to quickly and efficiently detect where there might be “leaks” on their grids, such as damaged transformers that are unable to handle all the power flowing through lines, or an illegal tapping into the lines to steal electricity.

Currently, the best indication electrical utilities have that there is a problem is when they get phone calls from irate customers that their power is off. The causes of such blackouts are manifold, and many utilities have alarm systems that indicate which substation is having a problem so that inspectors can find and fix transformers or other equipment, broken or damaged lines, etc.

While EGM’s solution provides data on major problems like blackouts, said company CEO Amir Cohen, the company’s mini-sensors, placed strategically on electrical lines, do much more.

“A lot of the problems that cause distribution problems are due not to direct or obvious causes, like a broken transformer, but to more esoteric issues like load balance problems, foreign objects interfering with the line, leaks due to failing but still functioning equipment, etc. Our sensors detect these problems, providing real time and predictive data on where problems currently exist, and where they can be expected to develop.”

Amos Cohen (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
Amos Cohen (Photo Credit: Courtesy)

The sensors, placed just a few dozen meters away from each other (the price per unit is “very reasonable,” said Cohen), gather data about what is happening in real time on either aboveground or underground transmission lines, process and analyze it, and send out data that is collected and displayed on a graphical user interface that shows real-time information on things electricity grid managers worry about – value measurement, frequency measurement, frequency deviation, and more.

While most of these matters are very technical, they can significantly affect the flow of electricity into customers’ homes, businesses, and offices. For example, if a piece of equipment like a transformer or isolator has a malfunction, it will continue to operate but some of the electricity it processes could be emitted through the malfunction (such as when the device gets physically damaged), with the power electrifying a power pylon (the steel or concrete structures through which the lines pass) or the ground around it – a potentially hazardous situation for anyone who gets too close, and a near-guarantee of transmission problems in the future, as the equipment continues to deteriorate.

Currently there is no way for a utility to detect a problem like this, said Cohen; there are too many factors and possibilities that could affect the flow of power, and unless the utility was inspecting its equipment on a very regular basis – a very expensive and inefficient way to do things, compared to his system – they would probably not figure what the problem was until it was too late, said Cohen. With the EGM system, an alert will pinpoint exactly where there is an anomaly in the flow of electricity and set off an alarm.

EGM, established about three years ago, is already deployed in Israel and in China, on the grid of one of Beijing’s big electrical utilities – and now, with the its new deal with IBM, the system is set to be installed on a lot more electrical wires, catapulting EGM from a small Yavne-based start-up to one of the most important energy tech firms in Israel.

The just-completed first round of the 24-week Alpha Zone Accelerator program provided the five start-ups that started the program last July with access to mentors, technology advisers, assistance from IBM research and development pros around the world, and a long-term plan to help companies get funding. The point of the program was to streamline the technology and business acumen of the start-ups, bringing them to the point where they could go global, selling their products or services around the world – with help from IBM’s huge worldwide sales force.

Among those companies, said Nathan Low, whose Ziontech Blue and Sunrise Financial Group is providing the business development component of the Accelerator program, was EGM. With technology like that produced by EGM, it was easy to understand why companies like IBM were rushing to make deals with Israeli start-ups.

“Israel is the number one country for active angel investments, and the start-ups in this program are the reason why,” said Low. “The companies here have already gone on to substantial successes, and this is only the beginning.”

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