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During a recent webinar examining the digitisation of electricity networks, Lucy Electric discussed some of the challenges facing companies.Captured below are insights into the key concerns from participants, which focused on how they could use the available data from their networks more effectively to get the most value out of their systems.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. 

Technology is transforming the world of energy and the rapid growth in disruptive technologies such as micro-grids, energy storage and electric vehicles – alongside the increased use of renewables and distributed energy resources – is having a major impact on energy network management.This is particularly relevant in many African countries where renewable energy is being seen as an important and sustainable way of supplementing generation, and micro-grids have helped rapidly extend access to electricity in many hard-to-reach areas.

This is changing the established network model. Traditionally networks were designed to deliver electricity along a linear supply chain with predictable customer demand and a balanced system. This is now no longer the case and electricity companies are having to change the way they monitor and manage networks to maintain quality and security of supply for customers. These changes have profound implications for the strategies and future role of companies all along the power utility value chain.

Increased data should mean increased insights

As a result of greater levels of automation and monitoring, companies are now starting to collect a significant amount of data. This data can add real value when analysed and turned into actionable information.

There is a danger, however, that utilities fail to look at all the aspects of big data collectively and ask how this can add value to the business, seeking instead to implement individual point solutions to address specific issues. Organisations need to think strategically and work collaboratively to realise the value of data in driving business outcomes.

Understanding the data needs for multiple user groups within the organisation is a great starting point in helping companies to define, refine and analyse the available data. Companies need to focus on information with a purpose – information that creates an impetus to action and helps add value for both the user and the organisation.

The right data can improve understanding of the networks and support better decisions on both the routine running of networks and future development and investment.

But don’t forget to take the following into account …

The challenge that utilities are wrestling with is getting the data out of their whole system architecture that is right for them. Firstly the mechanisms and the capability to process information across their MV network must be in place, but by expanding the monitoring and data collection to their LV network they run the risk of overwhelming their capacity Leveraging value from network data to process that data. In some cases, their existing systems may not have the ability to handle the volume of data generated and if it can’t be analysed to inform decisions then it doesn’t offer any value to the company.

Utilities need to think clearly about the evolution of their control networks and the data systems they want, need and can utilise to derive value. Therefore, a plan is essential, and it needs to look at what data is available, what systems are needed to process it and how the value of that can be extracted. The expertise to understand these factors isn’t always available in a utility company – nor does it necessarily make sense for it to be when companies are considering their needs for data storage and the analysis of it solely through an engineering lens

.… particularly in rural settings …

The primary challenges for rural networks in African countries are access to isolated areas and difficulty reaching inaccessible locations. Extending monitoring and data collection to the LV level of the network gives companies much better visibility of the harder to reach parts of the network. This information can be used to plan preventative maintenance schedules to increase the robustness of infrastructure in more exposed and vulnerable locations and allows for quicker fault location, isolation and resolution.

Again the key here is data mining to give the right information to operators remotely to make the process more efficient.

… and include cybersecurity across the board

Security is a major concern for utilities and one which needs robust protection. Companies need a clear strategy for protecting their system data as it flows through the process to ensure it is not vulnerable to cyber-attack. The main principles behind a cyber-secure system can be defined as a triad of confidentiality, integrity and availability (CIA), of which application priority depends on the usage. Thus, the prioritisation for SCADA is availability, integrity and confidentiality, whereas for data and monitoring the priority for these concepts is typically CIA.

Final thoughts

In conclusion, data is the key to network management in the future. The use of data and data analytics is becoming increasingly important for both network monitoring and control but for data to have value it needs to be actionable and aligned to the needs of multiple audiences within the organisation. Utility companies should be considering what they want and need from data and how to join up data and engineering expertise to help shape their long term plan for the evolution of their network. Collaborative working with specialist partners can give utilities the expertise they need to effectively mine, manage and analyse big data to help them plan for the best evolution of networks to meet customer needs now and in the future. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy. 

About the author Paul Beck is Director of Smart Grid at Lucy Electric and leads the Automation and LV Monitoring businesses within the company. With a background in electrical and electronic engineering, software development and systems engineering, Paul has held a variety of roles in engineering, sales and marketing and business management.

About the company Lucy Electric is a leader in secondary power distribution solutions with over 100 years’ industry experience. Specialising in high-performance medium voltage switchgear for utility, industrial and commercial applications, we enable the safe and reliable distribution of energy to homes and businesses worldwide. www.lucyelectric.com | @Lucyelectric