Grid Planning for Distributed Energy Resources: Exclusive Interview with Yamshid Farhat of BKW Energie - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Interview]

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Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Apr 4, 2019

BKW Energie AG is a power production & distribution utility that provides electricity throughout several European countries. Far from being complacent or stuck in the past, BKW prides itself in preparing for the future innovation across the utility industry and preparing for how that very industry is already under massive transformation.  

Key among that changing utility landscape is the advent of increased distributed energy resources (DERs), and what that means for both power producers, transmission & distribution companies, and end users of energy. This topic is of such importance that the upcoming DER-SmartGrid Integration 2019 Conference to take place in October is featuring a talk from BKW’s own Yamshid Farhat, a smart grid engineer. He will be sharing his presentatation titled “Grid Planning for DERs – optimizing grid planning and investment strategy to meet the demands of a more complex and distributed generation and demand landscape” with conference attendees. 

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In advance of this presentation, Yamshid sat down to share a preview and some insight into his presentation topic with the audience of Energy Central.


Matt Chester: Your presentation is going to cover how utilities can and should plan to meet the future demands that are going to be influenced by a changing landscape: more complex and distributed generation and well as increased demand. Can you give an overview of what the situation is that utilities are facing and why adapting is so important? 

Yamshid Farhat: Utilities are starting to face new challenges, which would require exponential network investments in the coming years if they were using the conventional network planning methods. At the same time, these new technologies that create these challenges, such as DERs or EVs, could also become an opportunity for a more robust and efficient network. Therefore, it is important for utilities to not just focus on the present, but also on the future. In order to transform problems into opportunities, a collaboration between utilities and regulators is required.

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MC: How well have utilities across the world planned for this type of change? Do you find that most are ahead of the curve or is there substantial work left to be done across the world? 

YF: I believe that the process is different for each country based on the regulatory frameworks and the local challenges. We are able to see some countries with a really high smart meter penetration, such as Spain and France, while other countries like Switzerland are just starting with the roll-out phase.  Most of the utilities follow their respective regulator and they are on track. 

But are utilities ready for the big changes that are expected to come via the European 2050 Energy Strategy, where the EU wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% compared with 1990 levels by 2050? That’s a critical question, as meeting these goals would require the replacement of almost all conventional transportation with electric vehicles and the replacement of almost all fossil-fueled power plants. Personally, I believe we are not yet ready to fulfill these goals.


MC: The other most important player in this conversation, outside of the energy providers, is the energy consumers. How can customers expect to see their day-to-day experience with their utility change in the face of these events? 

YF: One of the hardest challenges on the development of new smart grid technologies is catching the customers’ attention and involving them on the energy transition discussion. On our utility-scale domestic solar (USCADOS) project that we are going to present, we focus on provide to customers the best DER design in order to optimize the profitability, while reducing the network reinforcement costs.  Furthermore, we believe that when customers understand the potential of new business opportunities as self-consumption, they will keep moving forward to new technologies such as batteries and electric cars. It is important, though, that we don’t sell dreams but rather real opportunities. Therefore, we focus on potential DER installations that currently would have a positive net present value.


MC: An exciting part of this story is not just the strategies needed for grid planning under DERs, but also the advent of data, digital, and software tools to do so. What are the critical tools being used in this regard today? Do you have any insights into what sort of solutions are going to come available in the coming years that aren't in practice today? 

YF: This is probably the most exciting part of the development that is going on for utilities. The new digital tools allow new possible calculation methods that enable a more efficient integration of DER into the distribution network. In BKW, we are using cloud solutions in order to implement daily-automatized calculations for our whole network. The results are visualized in real-time on our GIS-system. These new capabilities enable our customer service to provide the required information to our customers directly without requiring the evaluation of network planners experts. These new digital technologies enable the integration of all type of data sources: GIS, SCADA, smart meters, etc. These new calculations will support not just the current projects but also the extension and the planning of the future network.

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MC: How will the grid planning process affect the bottom line of utilities? Some are worried that the advent of DERs will initiate a type of death spiral in the utility industry-- do you have concerns about that, or will the industry appropriately evolve to prevent such issues? 

YF: At BKW, it has been always clear that the paradigm of utility will change and we cannot prevent it. Therefore, we must not consider ourselves just an energy provider but also a service provider. New players will penetrate the energy market, but our goal remains the same: we should provide our customers the best services and products.


MC: On the clean power side, one of the main benefits touted about DERs is that they allow for greater penetration of renewable energy resources, decreased losses from T&D, and increased efficiency of the overall grid. How do you see that aspect fitting into the grid planning being done by energy providers?

 YF: From the theoretic point of view, that is true. A greater penetration of DER could reduce the network losses and increase the efficiency of the overall grid. The ugly truth is that in our rural network, the losses are not reduced because bigger PVs are located far from the main point of consumption and connected through long cables on the LV network. The regulator recommendations play a key role on the optimal integration of DER. In Switzerland, utilities play a reactive role. Utilities allow every customer to install DERs and the network costs are subsidized on the end energy bill. This regulation avoids discrimination to customers. On the other hand, the DERs are not optimally located and the efficiency of the overall grid is reduced. I believe that a proactive role from the DSOs could allow the identification of customers with a higher profitability while reducing the network reinforcement costs.


MC: Are there any topics you're excited to hear about in DER-SmartGrid Integration 2019 Conference presentations other than your own?  

YF: I am really looking forward to hearing from other DSOs on how they are integrating new big data and digitalization capabilities on their network planning and operation and seeing if further collaborations are possible in order to help each other. On the other hand, I am also really interested in hearing new ideas and use cases for blockchain solutions for network planning and operation purposes.


Interviewer's Note: Yamshid will be discussing these issues and more during his presentation at DER-SmartGrid Integration 2019 Conference. Keep an eye out on Energy Central and on the website for DER-SmartGrid Integration 2019 for upcoming conference date and other details ahead of the anticipated event in October. As mentioned, this presentation is titled "Grid Planning for DERs – optimizing grid planning and investment strategy to meet the demands of a more complex and distributed generation and demand landscape.”


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