As urban populations rise, city governments and utilities are facing substantial challenges in providing safe, reliable access to energy and water. This means providing the right tools and data to help people manage resources and make decisions. To address these challenges, many utilities are seeking solutions that provide more-accurate, real-time information.

Peoples Natural Gas (Peoples), headquartered in Pittsburgh, is the Keystone State’s largest natural gas distribution company, with more than 740,000 customers in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Peoples is committed to protecting the environment, improving the utility’s infrastructure and maintaining secure gas delivery. In order to deliver these goals, Peoples is investing in technology and partnerships to build a foundation for smart gas systems.

Recently, the city of Pittsburgh pursued smart city initiatives, grants and projects to improve the city’s ability to serve its citizens. In 2016, it applied for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge and was one of the top seven finalists. Now, Pittsburgh is building an active network to harness the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve safety and efficiency. Gas delivery is a key part of this process because, although gas utilities have decades of experience managing numerous connected devices, they require substantial innovation to be smart city-ready.

Peoples is developing a standards-based network, which will allow different devices from different developers to work together on one system. It is also important that this platform uses edge intelligence to gather data from numerous devices throughout the network, and analyzes them for accurate, real-time data. This unified system is referred to as an active network, which has deeper visibility and control.

To provide a unified system, Peoples installed Itron’s OpenWay® Riva Solution, which allows utilities to access and analyze high-resolution data in the field. This communications platform brings together a diverse array of meters, network devices and distributed assets to help deliver services and advance smart city goals.

By installing devices that are connected to Itron’s OpenWay Riva platform, utilities can rely on a solution that assesses the condition of the system. Through these innovations, gas utilities progress from a system of connected devices to an active network that monitors and responds to network changes in real time. This can mean responding to atypical conditions in the field more quickly, enhancing safety for first responders and efficiently managing field resources .

The movement to IoT-based networks with gas, water and electricity providers has been a gradual process, and gas utilities have been slower to adopt the technology. However, leveraging its decades of experience connecting gas distribution systems, Peoples is investing in a multipurpose communication network that includes gas modules to improve utility operations and customer service.

In 2015, Peoples asked the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to bring its methane detection technology and pipeline-mapping program (developed in a pilot with Google) to Pittsburgh to evaluate pipeline infrastructure. Peoples invited the EDF to assess its territory to ensure that its pipeline replacement program eliminates methane and reduces its impact on the environment. The collected data has allowed Peoples to integrate environmental impacts into its infrastructure modernization model. Peoples has used the data to develop a long-term plan and will spend hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade to replace aging pipelines. Peoples also launched a partnership with Carnegie Mellon University to continue methane detection and to enhance the environmental model used to create pipeline replacement plans.

To ensure operational efficiency, Peoples is set to deploy 460,000 smart gas modules over the next five years. Initially, Peoples will take advantage of mobile data collection to eliminate estimated billing, which will improve reliability. These gas modules will give Peoples the flexibility to automate meter reading and migrate to a smart network, as budget and schedule allows. Since the technology is designed to work alongside existing and future infrastructure, Peoples can add this technology over time.

Peoples has taken steps to use the active network to improve infrastructure with collaboration, education and integrated technology. Through partnerships with Carnegie Mellon University, Google and other stakeholders, Peoples is working to create and implement a strategic technology plan across its region. By connecting the devices and technology for multiple systems, the entire region will be able to share data and insights.

In addition, Peoples has partnered with community organizations such as the Energy Innovation Center (EIC), a Pittsburgh-based, nonprofit organization with a mission to engage corporate and community leaders, to create a workspace for education and innovation. EIC aims to develop and demonstrate technology, incubate business, and support emerging, clean and sustainable energy markets. This 200,000-square foot building functions as a living laboratory. It is a collaborative setting for the energy sector, governments, organizations and academic institutions.

Peoples also helped the EIC integrate small, efficient electricity generators that burn gas and liquid fuels, called microturbines, into their power system. EIC uses microturbines in a combined heat and power system, which generates both electricity and thermal energy. Due to its collaboration on this project, EIC is projected to increase its energy efficiency by 20 percent.

For metropolitan areas such as Pittsburgh, smart city solutions are key to combating pollution, modernizing aging utility systems and accommodating growing populations. In addition, Peoples is leading the deployment of interoperable communications infrastructure for gas and other applications.

The active network is creating new possibilities for gas utilities. They can now capitalize on the potential of connected devices that have the computing power to not only measure and communicate, but to also solve problems in the distribution network in real time. Data analysis and decisions now take place where it makes the most sense. With the right tools, the possibilities are endless.