Caterpillar quietly sharpens its big data skills

Caterpillar microgrid big data IoT
Caterpillar launched its hybrid solar microgrid last week at its testing centre in the Sonoran desert, Arizona

The event was Caterpillar’s launch of its ‘plug n’ play’ microgrid at its proving ground outside Tuscon.

The modular system offers power capacity between 10Kw and 100MW with a “sweet spot of distributed generation projects 10MW and under,” said a Caterpillar executive.

What surprised me was not that Caterpillar had seen an opportunity to mine the global microgrid market spurred by the decreasing cost of PV solar but that the US giant is selling an Internet of Things and big data solution without feeling the need to shout about it, writes Rose Bundock, content editor of Metering & Smart Energy International.

The microgrid system comprises thin-film PV modules (made by Arizona manufacturer First Solar), a bidirectional inverter, energy storage, generator sets and a microgrid master controller (MMC).

Each part of the system talks to the MMC by using the best communication technology available whether cloud-based internet, cellular or satellite.

When asked if connectivity is ever an issue in remote rural locations, one target market for the microgrid system, Francois-Xavier Saury, Caterpillar’s microgrid business development manager for Europe, Middle East, Africa and CIS, said: “Ten years ago maybe, but not any more. It is possible to have connectivity everywhere in the world.”

Caterpillar and big data

The MMC unit, which was developed in-house, then sends the information to CAT Connect, a centralised data processing unit that serves other divisions of the company including automated machinery.

The big data is analysed and fed back to the dealer that has sold the solution as well as the customer in real or near real-time.

[quote] The dealer sees an interface that monitors alarms on the system in real-time prompting proactive maintenance or remote software updates, explains Darrin Johnston, customer solutions manager, Microgrid at Caterpillar.

“While other analytics are more historical looking at trends, over the past day, week or month, and helping us to give recommendations to dealers and customers.”

For example, if the PV output of a microgrid is less than estimated, the system will suggest limiting factors such as panels covered in dirt or blocked by overgrowth.

Mr Johnston said the company is also aiming at prognostic data analysis by looking at the data stream and trying to predict issues before they happen, much in the same way as self-healing grids.

A key part of this is creating a network operation centre for CaterpillarInc that allows microgrid experts to pull the data and make service and performance optimisation recommendations to a dealer.

“A lot of the expertise needed to interpret big data and turn it into useful information is with the subject matter expert. This year the Electric Power division is expanding its network operations and defining its data services.”

Microgrid and utility services

Another way that Caterpillar is working towards prognostic analytics is by working with Chicago-based industrial internet software start-up Uptake.

Johnston says Caterpillar is also eyeing other services that can accompany a grid-connected microgrid such as commercial and industrial users creating contracts with local utilities to allow demand reduction.

“We expect to see utilities pay for services like frequency regulation where they can call on C&I customers in time increments such as one-hour before, and request a load reduction. With energy storage or gen sets on site, customers can respond quickly and reduce consumption from the grid.”

Another ancillary service that grid-connected microgrids with energy storage can supply is voltage support for utility distribution networks, which is “fairly new, even in the developed world,” says Johnston.

So why isn’t Caterpillar shouting about its IoT and big data services from the rooftops?

“We aren’t as vocal as some other companies about what we’re doing in that space, but Caterpillar has been [gathering data] for a long time through our construction equipment,” says Rick Rathe, managing director, Microgrids and Energy Storage.

“We’re really expanding it though and our investment in Uptake provides the data analytics piece. As a company, we are leveraging a lot of these start-up high tech companies that are just about ready to go commercial and have proven out their technology. They need a distribution channel but they have to fit with our needs because we need the best best solution at the best price – at end of the day, we’re still selling kWh.”