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Rapid change in the way energy is generated, distributed and consumed is driving African energy companies to invest in automation to manage shifting requirements and improve the efficiency and reliability of their networks.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

As automated networks in Africa evolve, data is becoming increasingly important for both monitoring as well as control. Companies need to understand how energy is being generated, moved and used across the network. Data is also fundamental to managing and maximising the growth in renewable energy sources, being driven by the decarbonisation agenda.

But the scale of the data that companies are receiving from automated networks is presenting challenges of its own. The installation of data-gathering remote terminals across networks has seen operators move from a position of not having the data necessary to support future energy services, to one of having such vast amounts that it presents challenges in processing it into actionable decisions at scale. Thus, having the right tools to store, manage and interpret this data will be strategic to network management in the future.

Actionable information

New monitoring systems make it possible for companies to see much more specific
network data on a day-by-day basis. It is important for companies to be able to understand the valuable information within the data, which can help them make better decisions on both the routine running of networks and future development and investment.

In our role as a solutions provider for distribution network projects, we can advise companies on how to prioritise data requirements to get the best value for the organisation. Operational asset managers may want different things from those utilising SCADA systems. Future asset planning teams may approach the information in another way compared to the innovation teams. This has provided us with valuable insights into where data can offer the most actionable decisions across a number of asset-orientated roles. The information can give companies a much deeper understanding of losses, power
quality and faults as well as being a key input for network maintenance and planning.

For the network CEO who wants a morning dashboard of performance, faults and customer interruptions – interpreting this extra data will be essential. Operations directors overseeing the many concurrent projects on their network each day will want greater detail and need the analytics tools to work harder for them. Right across asset management and planning, and the Board, which reviews the investment value for customers, the perspective on data will be how the decision-making process changes with more valuable information.

Companies may also wish to consider when and how they share this information with third parties, such as academic studies, peer-to-peer trading platforms and, in the future, community energy marketplaces.

Unlock network potential

As data becomes increasingly important, new systems are being developed to improve network visibility – particularly at low voltage levels, a traditional blind spot for network
operators. Lucy Electric’s GridKey range is a medium and low voltage substation monitoring system, which can be fitted to the feeders of a substation without interrupting
supply to customers. It provides continuous remote monitoring of substations as well as timely warnings, status and loading information. Data from GridKey can identify at-risk circuits, helping utilities address faults before they occur as well as monitoring power quality, losses and theft.

This allows companies to plan for unusual peaks and load profiles to make better use of assets without costly reinforcement being necessary. To manage the considerable challenges involved in analysing and storing the data collected, GridKey uses a nonrelational database based on the same technology used by Google, Facebook and Amazon. These types of databases are increasingly used to manage big data on the internet and are capable of analysing the volumes of data collected by network monitoring systems to deliver the real-time, tailored information needed for today’s network management systems. We continue to research new ways of manipulating information and using it to manage networks. Currently we are developing new algorithms to detect when an electric vehicle has been plugged in – a growing issue for domestic networks.

Electric vehicles can create a significant load impact on the low voltage network – particularly if they occur in a cluster. As the electric vehicle market grows, it is important for operators to understand the locations and usage profiles of these vehicles to help maintain power quality and protect against network overload.

We are also exploring enhanced graphical user interfaces to make network data more accessible and easier for operators to quickly interpret.

Cost-effective infrastructure

We are also working to make automation solutions more accessible. For many companies, network automation requires major investment but different points of the network do not require the same levels of monitoring and control. To help keep the costs of implementation to a minimum, we recently launched a new mini remote terminal unit (RTU). Part of our market-leading range of Gemini 3 RTUs, the Gemini 3 Mini adds a high quality, entry level option, which is a great solution for customers looking to manage costs without compromising on quality or functionality. It can control up to six switches, either locally or remotely, through a humanmachine interface (HMI) module and is available as a
‘monitoring only’ option.

A flexible future

In conclusion, at a time when there is so much discussion around the future of our energy system, the questions about how processes, procedures and relationships will change
still constitute a complex debate. Informing the solutions requires valuable data that companies can act upon. At Lucy Electric we believe two factors will play an important part in that process – flexibility and accessibility.

Engineers, innovators and academics, working collaboratively, can achieve great things by sharing meaningful data to develop new solutions. In the same way that flexibility is at the heart of industry and government thinking, it is also the right way to approach learning. You can’t predict everything and plan for everything, nor can you know exactly what data will be needed. What can be done is to capture it, interpret it and enable those managing the networks of the future to make decisions more effectively.

You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.