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Heading for Proactive Grid Operations

image credit: Consolidated and complete grid documentation is the foundation for delivering on proactive grid control.
Jens Dalsgaard's picture
Principal Product Owner Volue

Optimizing business processes in the electric utilities calls for IT. Following the monolithic way prevents making optimal use of best of breed solutions in a rapidly developing market. Rather...

  • Member since 2020
  • 22 items added with 1,994 views
  • May 26, 2021

This item is part of the Grid Modernization - May 2021 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Electric Utilities Facing New Challenges

Very few things are static; It seems fair though to state that operating electric utilities were for decades. Tomorrow would be as the same time last year. Occasionally extending the grid when new residential areas were built or when industries expanded requiring higher power consumption. Of course, the ongoing maintenance. And from time to time, the hectic restoring after outages caused by storms.

But this is changing - electric utilities are facing drastic changes and must react.

Reliable access to electric energy is a foundation for growth, for everyday living. Even more so in our near-term future where electrical energy to a large extent is to take over the role of fossil fuels.

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At the same time, operating a grid is increasingly becoming increasingly complex.

  1. Decentralized production patterns with variable renewable energy - even feeding into the distribution grid - taking over after the centralized power plants producing as planned.
  2. Electric vehicle charging and feeding back into the grid.

Adding to this, an increasing number of storms, heat waves, ... caused by climatic changes are likely to lead to more outages.
And this must be dealt with facing regulatory requirements and managements calling for more cost-efficient grid operation…

Ways of working must change. Intelligent addressing these challenges is needed to avoid CapEx and OpEx exploding.

I dare to predict a major development to gain momentum over the coming years. Utilities succeeding delivering – and the societies to which these utilities deliver electric energy - will be the winners of tomorrow.

From Reactive to Proactive Grid Operation

Historically, electric distribution companies have reacted to grid failures when getting informed by customers meeting power loss or power quality issues.

SCADA allowed automatically measuring / detecting issues at higher voltage levels. And with the application of ADMS solutions and integration of smart meters, quality-of-service issues are automatically captured from the meters. Using this input, the ADMS automatically narrows down potential points of failure.

Still, we are working reactively – when errors occur, we act.

With grid operation increasingly becoming unpredictable utilities are realising that the solutions of yesterday will not suffice for the future.

Utilities must change from reacting to controlling. We must deliver on proactive grid control.

Proactive grid operation implies 24-7-365 calculating the loading of all cables, overhead lines, transformers, … - and doing this as well for near-term predicted consumption and production at each meter. For the entire grid.

This way the utility will know beforehand of potential overloading / voltage issues. This in turn will 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 all its electric vehicles offering two-ways energy flow. I have no doubt that all car manufacturers soon will be offering this allowing grid operators to charge the battery when this is beneficial to the local grid situation and feed into the grid from the battery when this is needed. Of course still making sure the battery is charged when needed by the customer. 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 DER’s to temporary shut-off, down-scale or otherwise alter production if grid loading or voltages approaches limits.

Enabling the Proactive Grid Operation

To support proactivity utilities will require a new portfolio of software solutions. We are facing a future where data and software solutions are as important as hardware. 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 electric utility. Companies not understanding will face hard times.

The foundation for any decision making is data.

To support proactive grid control the data requirements are harsh though reachable as we see at the many utilities having focused (having management focus) on this.

Firstly, a true digital twin of the grid is required, a comprehensive and consolidated documentation of the grid geometry, connectivity, switching status, impedance data, asset information – to a level of detail allowing complete topological analysis and tracing across circuits, voltage levels, through substations, … all the way to the individual loads.

My recommendation is to go for a modern GIS solution (no names mentioned) allowing for this and offering field workers to engage, utilize, and update grid data anywhere, anytime, and on any device. 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 depict a near future where utilities will have fewer processes / workflows depending on work in the office with the bottle-neck issues caused hereby. We will see apps delivering the decision support directly to the field worker. Being it planning new grid, performing short-circuit and load-flow calculations, replacing assets, and performing maintenance tasks. And I firmly believe this accessibility as being a necessity in data management.

An up-to-date documentation of the grid is one side of the coin. Smart meters delivering hourly meter readings is the other side offering the grid loading and quality of service data.

Upon this foundation of data, the electric utilities will require a software portfolio offering:

  1. Trustworthy near-term predictions of consumption and prediction at every meter.
  2. Automated and up-to-date plus near future load-flow calculations and hence predicting of upcoming grid congestions.
  3. Automated identification of mitigating measures – which batteries to charge / use as local production units, which DER’s to disconnect, which tie-breakers to switch, …
  4. Trading with the many EV- and DER-owners/units (prosumers) 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 prosumers 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. It will be the other way around: micro-grids will become the result of the solutions.

Top-Level Commitment Required.

Electric utility business is facing major changes and whenever major changes occur uncertainty grows.

Many organizations in such situations tend to focus on the things that may go wrong if we change the way we have been working for decades… To overcome the organizational resistance management must take charge.

Also, the solution will be costly; Yet less expensive than going-the-hardware-way (adding more copper). This too calls for grid operator management and board of directors 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 bound to take long. How well fit is your organization for taking on this transformation.

Which consultants and IT-vendors will you be partnering with for delivering into this new vision? Vendors understanding the electric utility business in depth is an absolute must. Besides, vendors being able to deliver on a solution portfolio – or parts thereof - as outlined above. Not necessarily the vendors on your radar today.

The software vendor market too is set for change.

The journey is challenging yet rewarding.

And as challenging it may be – do 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.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2021

And as challenging it may be – do 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.

You could very much argue that this alternative has been the status quo for a good number of years at this point. For those who have been holding out in the investments you describe here, what do you think might be the final breaking point before they jump aboard with the new modern strategies? Or is it going to require a changing of the guard? 

Jens Dalsgaard's picture
Jens Dalsgaard on May 26, 2021

Yeah, well you cannot argue that a burning platform will make things happen. It is burning already. And actions are missing.

Changing of the guard is hard to do, since we do not have a lot of people to take from. Following comments here at Energy Central I do get a feeling though that some of the guards are so backward-looking that at least they will not lead the troops anywhere new. These need to to be either convinced or pushed aside.

Managements needs to take charge. But to some extent nobody tells them where to go and how. Thee is a need for raising management heads above what the usual guard tells them and to seek international inspiration. 

And here I think the answer lies in looking internationally. You will need the few companies taking charge and showing to the rest the vision, the way, and the results.

But you need to look beyond your neighborhood - interesting things are happening out here.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2021

Changing of the guard is hard to do, since we do not have a lot of people to take from.

Well said. Look at 10 years ago how the Texas grid was warned about what could happen during a cold spell, and then nothing was done to fix it in the decade since and we ended up with the disaster of this past February. Hopefully the changing of the guard will be motivated by that burning platform!

Tony Sleva's picture
Tony Sleva on Jun 22, 2021


I agree that electric utilities need to become more proactive.  The wildfires in California (November 2018) that were ignited by power lines, the rolling blackouts in Texas (February 2021) that resulted in damage to water and sewage treatment facilities, and the UK Blackout (August 2019) are indicators of the need for electric utilities to become proactive.

The first thing that electric utilities need to do is to develop a Next Generation Leadership Team that understands the fundamentals of power system design, power transfer parameters, and FIDVR (Fault Induced Delayed Voltage Recovery).  The next thing is that electric utilities need to assist in the integration of these fundamental concepts into next generation technology.

Compare, for example, the utilization of bi-directional electric vehicle battery chargers with the operation of traditional large, three phase, power generators.  Electric utilities need to maintain 1.) power system frequency above 59.6 hertz as protective relaying schemes automatically shed load at 59.2 hertz, 2.) power system voltage above 100% at control points, 3.) balanced voltage at all locations with three phase motors or generators, 4.) reserve energy (watts) equal to the amount needed to support FIDVR, and reserve excitation energy (vars) equal to the amount needed to support FIDVR during summer peak load conditions.  Traditional three phase generators are designed to support system operations for each of these items.  Static var compensators, transformers with load tap changers, automatic voltage regulators and other components are installed to optimize power system performance.

To be useful to electric utilities, bi-directional EV battery chargers will need to respond to voltage and frequency variations, FIDVR events and short circuit conditions.  This means that electric utilities need to identify the required performance parameters.  For example, electric utilities should require that bi-directional EV battery chargers transition to the standby mode if power system frequency drops to 59.9 Hertz and transition to the discharge mode if power system frequency drops to 59.6 Hertz.

Electric utilities cannot plod along and rely on past practice to meet tomorrow’s needs.  They must engage thought leaders and participate in developing a strategy for the incorporation of renewable energy sources, microgrids, etc. into the legacy power grid.

Jens Dalsgaard's picture
Jens Dalsgaard on Jun 24, 2021

Upgrading of utility leadership is one thing.  And this cannot happen to quick - as Matt states above -  we seem to experience leadership stalemate. How big problems are needed for things to happen?!

You outline potential technological approaches, Tony, and we should look at every potential part in delivering the solutions - time is limited. I do believe though, that you are bringing components to the equation that once again misses to enforce proactiveness. The approaches outlined act when problems occur.  

Despite very little indicating the electric utility business acting or thinking progressively, this is what we need. Not 20 years from now but starting tomorrow. We are back to leadership.

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