The energy industry is facing a drastic change. To transition successfully, it needs to shift from reactive to proactive grid control. For this, data and software solutions are as important as hardware, writes Jens Dalsgaard, Principal Product Owner at Volue.
Jun 22, 2021
Very few things are static. It seems fair to state though that operating electric utilities was static for decades. Tomorrow would be the same as this time last year.
Occasionally, utilities would need to extend the grid when new residential areas were built or when industries expanded requiring higher power consumption. Of course, there was also ongoing maintenance. And from time to time, the hectic restoring after outages caused by storms.
But this is changing – electric utilities are facing a drastic shift and they must react.
Reliable access to electricity is the foundation of growth and of everyday life. Even more so in the near future when electrical energy will take over from fossil fuels.
At the same time, operating a grid is becoming increasingly complex.
Decentralized production patterns with variable renewable energy (even feeding into the distribution grid) take over after the centralized power plants that produce as planned.
Electric vehicles charge and feed back into the grid.
Adding to this, an increasing number of storms and wildfires caused by climate change are likely to lead to more outages. And this must be dealt with while meeting regulatory requirements and calls from management for more cost-efficient grid operation.
The ways we operate power grids must change. And we must address these challenges in an intelligent way so that we avoid CapEx and OpEx exploding.
I dare to predict a major development that will gain momentum over the coming years. The power utilities that deliver successfully as well as the societies where these utilities operate will be the winners of tomorrow.
The power utilities that deliver successfully as well as the societies where these utilities operate will be the winners of tomorrow.
Jens Dalsgaard Principal Product Owner, Volue
Historically, the Distribution System Operators (DSOs) have reacted to grid failures reactively – when they were called by customers who experienced power loss or power quality issues.
The SCADA control system has allowed the automatic measuring and detecting of issues at higher voltage levels. And with the application of Advanced Distribution Management System (ADMS) solutions and the integration of smart meters, quality-of-service issues are automatically captured from the meters. By utilizing this input, the ADMS automatically narrows down potential points of failure.
Still, utilities are working reactively – acting when errors occur.
With grid operation increasingly becoming unpredictable, utilities are realizing that the solutions of yesterday will not suffice in the future. Utilities must change from reacting to controlling. We must deliver on proactive grid control.
Proactive grid operation implies that 24-7-365 the utility is calculating the load of every cable, overhead line, and transformer – and doing this also for the predicted near-term consumption and production of each meter. For the entire grid.
This way, the utility will know beforehand of potential overloading and voltage issues and will, in turn, allow software solutions to automatically negotiate with electric vehicles connecting to the grid, with distributed energy producers, with consumers offering flexible loads, and hence proactively control the grid loading.
Volkswagen recently announced that starting in 2022, all its electric vehicles will offer two-way energy flow. I have no doubt that all car manufacturers will soon be offering this.
This should be utilized by grid operators to charge batteries when this is beneficial to the local grid and feed into the grid from batteries when this is needed. Of course, still making sure the battery is charged when needed.
EV-owners are becoming prosumers. We turn the multitude of local batteries into a strength rather than a challenge.
Likewise, a proactive grid control may send signals to solar panel owners or other Distributed Energy Resources (DER) to temporarily shut off, down-scale or otherwise alter production if grid loading or voltages are approaching limits.
To support this, utilities will require a new portfolio of software solutions.
In the future, data and software solutions will be as important as hardware.
The foundation for any decision-making is data.
To support proactive grid-control, the data requirements are harsh though reachable. We see this from the many utilities that have focused on this.
The value of data and software – not just as a vague appreciation but as a hardcore value listed in the company valuation – will become a discussion at any DSO. Companies not understanding this are facing hard times.
Utilities will require a new portfolio of software solutions.
Jens Dalsgaard Principal Product Owner, Volue
A true digital twin of the grid involves consolidated documentation of the grid geometry, connectivity, switching status, impedance data, asset information – to a level of detail allowing topological analysis and tracing across circuits, voltage levels, and through substations.
Offering access for field workers to engage, utilize, and update all grid data anywhere, anytime, and on any device is pivotal.
Leaving the task of establishing and maintaining data quality to a centralized GIS department will render inefficient workflows – and will not offer the optimal value of data.
I generally imagine a near future where DSOs have fewer processes and workflows that depend on work in the office and the bottle-neck issues this causes.
Utilities will be offering apps delivering the decision support directly to the field worker – whether it’s planning a new grid, performing short-circuit and load-flow calculations, replacing assets or performing maintenance tasks.
Like in many other businesses, apps and the inherent accessibility they offer are a necessity in data management. Any field worker will soon have the tools available to support business processes.
But up-to-date documentation of the grid is one side of the coin. Smart meters delivering hourly meter readings and offering grid loading and quality of service data is the other side.
Upon this foundation of data, the DSO will require a software portfolio offering:
Trustworthy near-term prediction of consumption and production at every meter.
Up-to-date and near future load-flow calculations and prediction of upcoming grid congestion.
Automatically identifying mitigating measures – which batteries to charge and use as local production units, which DERs to disconnect, which tie-breakers to switch.
Trading with the many EV- and DER-owners and units now acting as energy flexibility service providers.
Proactive grid control will offer the means to prevent or postpone investments in grid reinforcement as well as minimize grid losses.
This value may be shared with the electric vehicle and local battery owners acting as flexibility service providers. We are heading for a future with an endless number of energy flexibility service merchants.
We often hear of micro-grids as the solution to the challenges. I believe micro-grids will become the result of the solutions.
Electric utilities are facing major changes and whenever major changes occur uncertainty grows.
In such circumstances, many organizations tend to focus on the things that may go wrong if they change the way they have been working for decades. Organizational resistance is natural but this is where management comes in.
Also, although the solutions will be costly, they will be less expensive than going the hardware way of adding more copper. This too calls for those at the top to commit to the new path and deliver on funding.
Utilities taking on this new challenge will need to understand that this is a complex change and transformation will take some time.
And as challenging as this may be – let's not ignore the fact that the alternative to proactive grid control may very well be accepting deteriorating grid reliance and increased cost operating the grid and/or adding more hardware. And societies unable to sustain a thriving business.
If you'd like to find out how Volue software can help you with proactive grid control, get in touch with us.
* This article was first published in Energy Central.