The digital transformation of gas distribution networks is one of Italgas’ strategic priorities. Significant investments have been focused on this area, with a view to generating beneficial impacts in different directions.
For a better understanding of the changes from traditional infrastructure and the projects that Italgas is working on, we leave the floor to Mr. Paolo Bacchetta, who is at the helm of Italgas Reti.
Mr. Bacchetta, how much is Italgas committed to the project of digital transformation?
It is easily understandable how significant our commitment on this matter is when considering the amount of investments included in the Strategic Plan. In the 2019-2021 three-year period, out of a comprehensive plan of 800 million euro to be invested in network digitalization and corporate processes, Italgas has specifically allocated 500 million euro to equip its networks with smart meters and widespread sensors.
With regard to the distribution networks, in 2018, we have already completed 50 pilot projects spread all over the Italy. Moreover, we are well on track to achieve the target of completing the digitalization of all our meters by 2020: at the end of May 2019, we had already replaced around 67% of all traditional meters with smart meters.
What are the benefits of having distribution networks with a digital identity?
Firstly, it allows for a better management of the infrastructure. Leveraging on new technologies, we will be able to measure and monitor gas consumption more accurately, prevent leaks and dispersions, and manage maintenance interventions on a predictive basis. A set of new functional opportunities that will therefore have significant impacts on the standards of security and service quality; they will improve the overall efficiency of the system, while reducing the environmental impact of our activities.
The choice of the digital transformation of the networks is even more significant as it is part of a project involving the whole Italgas organically. Since we have migrated all our applications, users and information services to the Cloud, we have started capturing the benefits from infrastructure flexibility and open innovation, as we could count on our Digital Factory, which is already at work to develop new IT solutions that simplify and make corporate processes more functional.
We are also transforming the way our technicians work, as today they can perform on the move many activities that until recently required their presence on site.
In practical terms, the more efficient the network is, the more we all save; this results in an advantage for the final customer whose bill becomes more consistent with real consumptions, while Italgas does not keep going house to house in order to collect data on consumptions.
With the new application under development in our digital factory, we will be even more efficient in our intervention planning. This will allow us to improve the quality of our services.
In which areas are we going to see major innovations?
Already during 2018, we started different technology innovation projects that are also included in the National Plan Industry 4.0 of the Ministry of Economic Development. Firstly, we completed a pilot project on 50 gas distribution subnetworks. More specifically, we installed on the networks some devices that allow us to acquire physical and analogic parameters, useful for analysis and predictions; such devices also make it possible to have direct feedback on the status of the parameters monitored. In the coming two years, the networks digitization will involve 6,500 subnetworks; that will allow for an increase by a factor of ten in the measurement flow throughout the infrastructure. In this way, we can significantly reduce outages due to network failures or malfunctions.
Which other progresses do you expect in terms of efficiency in distribution?
As a result of the installation of several thousand new pression telemonitoring points at the end or in relevant points of the network, we will be able to improve the control of the functionality of our system. In this regard, we are working on an experimental project on some Italgas low-pressure networks, in order to develop and refine a methodology of collection and treatment of data that leads to the identification of an efficiency parameter of the distribution infrastructure. This means to be able to manage the network keeping the optimal pressure level, neither high nor low, while guaranteeing service quality notwithstanding fluctuations in gas consumptions. A stable pression on optimal levels also offers benefits in terms of lower emissions and dispersions of natural gas in the atmosphere, with a positive impact on the environment.
Are you addressing the issue of dispersions by any other means?
Yes, we are. We have introduced a laser technology with the Cavity Ring-Down Spectroscopy system, also known as CRDS. Such system allows for a more evolved dispersion detection compared to the one traditionally used in the distribution business until now. After the conclusion of the trial phase of the new cavity ring-down spectroscopy methodology in 2018, we introduced the system in our business practice. Today we can identify any dispersion in road pipelines, user branches or riser columns, with greater selectivity for other types of gas and with a faster vehicular inspection and dispersion deletion. CRDS System presents a sensitivity that is 1,000 times higher than that of any other laser systems used so far: we are talking about the ability to detect gas particles in terms of parts per billion, i.e. ppb, instead of parts per million, i.e. ppm. Furthermore, the huge amount of data collected is processed via cloud by a sophisticated software that can detect dispersions even at 150 – 200 meters from the detector and until the second or third floor of the houses – depending on wind conditions – compared to the 2 to 3 meters distance, as it has been to date. All in all, the ability to detect leaks today is 4 to 5 times higher than with traditional systems.
What are the other projects you are focusing on in order to improve the safety of your distribution activities?
We concluded a research within the European Gas Research Group, on the interaction between odoriferous compounds in biomethane and traditional odorants, namely tetrahydrothiophene – or THT – and tert-butyl mercaptan – or TBM. It is essential to keep the effectiveness of gas odorization also in biogas, as a crucial factor to guarantee safety in the distribution business: should any accidental dispersion occur, these odorants allow us to identify the presence of natural gas, which – being odorless and colorless – is otherwise very hard to detect. In particular, this study focused on the behavior of some interferents (Limonene, Pinene, Butanone and DMS), in the presence of THT and TBM odorants.
Do the new frontiers of technology provide any help in the security of the system?
Of course they do. Just think about the new RFID markers, which today can be used to share information on the localization of underground pipes. Those new devices are electronic tags consisting of an integrated circuit and an antenna. They allow not only for reading the info registered during the pipe lay-down, but also for getting new information without digging, thanks to the radio-frequency short-range data transmission. The RFID marker is positioned close to the underground pipes, so that it can be located using a transceiver controlled by an operator on the road. The marker can provide structured information on type of material, installation depth and position of underground pipes, with no need to be powered by electricity sources, as data exchange with the transceiver occurs by electromagnetic induction.