The global transition in energy systems’ generation, increased demand, and new technologies are becoming faster as digital technologies play an increasingly significant role in shaping the energy system of the future and how customers interact with it.
The convergence of computing and telecommunications has enabled the digitisation of the grid. These grid technologies are providing greater situational awareness, making systems more efficient and responsive.
This is important in enabling network operators to keep pace with an evolving network. The established network model has changed dramatically over the past few years, with the rapid growth of renewable energy sources at distribution level having a major impact on how networks are managed. This is particularly relevant in many African countries where renewable energy is an important and sustainable way of rapidly extending access to electricity in many hard-to-reach areas.
These additions to the grid represent both production and consumption of energy. Sources can be embedded generation, solar PV as well as storage.
These interactions are disruptive, and network operators are developing new ways of working and new strategies to keep pace with the demands of an evolving energy future.
Digital technology at the heart of transformation
The convergence of distributed energy resources and internet technologies is driving the development and implementation of a new power delivery system. This is coming from the grid’s edge and is enabling systems that can be designed around specific user requirements, and which can deliver reductions in cost and carbon emissions, and improvements in security of supply and efficiency.
Currently, this grid edge technology comprises the monitoring systems that measure the current and voltage on the network, something that has been in place for 50-60 years on transmission networks and 20-30 years at the distribution level. However, advanced communications networks now allow for substation monitoring to capture data at the most remote locations, closest to customer demand.
New technologies require different architecture
The increasing use of network automation is creating more reliable and stable networks and the implementation of these overlays to the network is now becoming more widespread. As such, Lucy Electric has installed many automation projects for its customers across Africa in the past few years.
Typically these employ SCADA systems and RTUs to operate the grid remotely, reducing fault identification times from hours to seconds and massively improving fault resolution times. These systems are based on ‘detect and respond’ actions effectively replicating what an operator would do – but much faster.
However, integrating disruptive technologies such as distributed energy resources requires a new mode of operation – ‘anticipate and avoid’ – because the system needs to be balanced.
Because these sources of generation are being pushed to the edge, the system needs to be monitored more closely in order to deliver consistent power from multiple sources at the grid edge rather than centrally. Monitoring data needs to be able to predict demand peaks from historical trends as well as providing a picture of what is happening in real time.
To do this, and to do it economically, the system has to be smart. Going forward we need to consider how the architecture of the grid and of the communications and grid edge technologies can work together. This requires planning from a system architecture point of view and building in flexibility at the start.
In the past, generation would follow load, whereas now load is adapting to energy production. Monitoring data needs to be analysed to provide actionable information that allows companies to predict and respond to fluctuations in load and demand, and to proactively balance and manage the network.
This is also where demand response can be introduced at the grid edge with consumers responding to signals regarding time-of-use and other peak shifting incentives.
Customer impact on grid design
While data from the grid is captured and analysed by the network operator, it is the customer who will determine what opportunities this interface between new technologies and utilities can bring.
Customers’ increasing awareness of the available technologies and a greater expectation that network operators will facilitate these will be a catalyst for change among utilities.
Lucy Electric is already seeing this through its work with UK electricity networks as more customers connect electric vehicles, want to sell their excess solar energy to the grid, and as more storage becomes available. The motivation is to maximise the returns on this energy by participating in the markets being created for flexible services. Lucy Electric is applying this knowledge to ensure the firm’s data analytics systems provide actionable information both in real time and based on historical asset data – identifying trends and informing investment planning strategies.
Future opportunities for network operators
Network operators are already looking ahead at how innovation can support a more efficient grid. Having a grasp of the data will be a key contributor to enabling future energy markets and localised balancing of the grid. It will drive the dynamic systems needed to support peertopeer energy trading at a local level, facilitate vehicle-to-grid power flows on a significant scale, and unlock the new era of flexibility that is based on ever-changing factors rather than historic capacity.
The level of data that network operators can get from their assets now will be invaluable in planning for the demand of future customers and the implications that this will have on assets. Ensuring that data collection from networks is aligned with future strategy, as well as current network management needs, will allow companies to prepare for the next decade of network management. ESI
By Phil Dingle, marketing director at Lucy Electric, UK
About the company
Lucy Electric is a leader in secondary power distribution solutions with over 100 years’ industry experience. Specialising in high-performance media voltage switchgear for utility, industrial and commercial applications, we enable the safe and reliable distribution of energy to homes and business worldwide.