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Utilities turning to digital twins to help with grid management

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The more that people who operate and maintain electric transmission and distribution grids can anticipate what’s going to happen to them, the better they can do their jobs.

That’s why some are starting to utilize digital twins to help them see how their grids will deal with a wide set of conditions and events.

A digital twin is “a digital replica of a physical asset, system, process or place that enables its remote monitoring and analysis throughout its lifecycle,” Johan Gout, the chief operating officer of Capture 3D Inc., wrote in a short article for

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Gout said digital twins originated in the 1970s when NASA started using full-scale, virtual models of space capsules to see how the capsules would behave in outer space.

Wikipedia, however, put their origins three decades later when Michael Grieves, who then was at the University of Michigan but now is the chief scientist of advanced manufacturing and the executive vice president of operations at the Florida Institute of Technology, introduced the concept of digital twins at a Society of Manufacturing Engineers conference.

“Grieves proposed the digital twin as the conceptual model underlying product lifecycle management,” Wikipedis said.

Grieves thinks digital twins are still in the conceptual phase themselves.

“We have this information that we can bring together to create this virtual version of real-world environments based on models and behavioral aspects and modeling and simulation,” Grieves told Carlos M. Gonzalez for an article on the American Society of Manufacturing Engineers website. “The next step is to have all this information be pulled together automatically and intelligently, and we’re starting to see that occur as the software capabilities begin to arise.”

One place those capabilities are arising is in the electric power industry, as Internet of Things technology and high-speed communications networks make possible the real-time monitoring of equipment and grids, and software developers churn out products to make use of the information that the monitoring provides.

A project that Fugro, which describes itself as “the world’s leading Geo-data specialist,” is undertaking in Tasmania doesn’t use real-time monitoring but should be helpful to the state utility there.

Fugro is creating a digital twin of the distribution network operated by TasNetworks on the Apple Island, which is part of Australia. The Dutch company is gathering aerial lidar and image data and processing it with machine learning software. TasNetworks will then be able to use Fugro’s cloud-based Roames World platform to analyze the data for engineering work and vegetation clearance so it can reduce the chance of its equipment sparking fires.

Fugro also will use helicopter-mounted cameras to capture high-resolution images of the tops of TasNetworks’ poles in areas prone to high outages, such as ones with a lot of wind and/or salt spray. The images then will be assessed with automated data analytic software to identify damaged or corroded components that need to be replace immediately, as well as to help TasNetworks develop long-term asset maintenance and replacement plans.

A rural electric cooperative in Washington last year had a digital twin built of its distribution network but for a different purpose.

Peninsula Light used the digital twin built by IQGeo to help it deploy 33,000 meters, according to an Energy Central post by DW Keefer. IQGeo used data from Esri’s geographic information software, Peninsula Light’s customer information system and active meter orders to create a geospatial view of the Gig Harbor, Washington-based co-op’s network that could be accessed by workers and managers throughout Peninsula Light’s organization. iQGeo also used the same data and information to produce a meter installation progress map for Peninsula Light’s customers.

In Holland, a professor was planning to build a digital twin of the entire country’s grid, but it’s not clear that he got the funding he needed.

A December 2019 article by Delft University of Technology said Peter Palensky, its professor for intelligent power grids, had built a digital twin of a quarter of the Dutch grid that he was planning to replace with a model of the entire grid if he got funding from the Dutch Research Council.

Palensky said that once the model was built, he intended to investigate how the grid responds to stimuli or shocks, such as new wind farms or foreign cyber-attacks. After that, he said, he was “interested in finding out if we can develop an alternative electricity grid that's more adapted to the modern age. It's very unlikely to replace the existing grid any time soon, but I think we have a lot to learn from this theoretical exercise."

Less theoretically, he thought the digital twin would provide grid operators, such as TenneT, which runs transmission grids in The Netherlands and Germany, with a wealth of information on how to make and keep their networks stable.

Digital twins likely will be coming to the utility industry in the U.S. in a big way.

Infrastructure engineering company Bentley Systems announced last November that it had launched an effort to fund technology companies working to address “the emerging opportunity for … digital twin solutions for roadways, railways, waterways, bridges, utilities, industrial facilities, and other infrastructure assets.”

The effort is a $100 million venture capital fund called Bentley iTwin Ventures that the Exton, Pa., company said will invest in early and mid-stage companies that can develop applications and solutions that use its iTwin Platform and open-source toolkits to leverage and extend infrastructure digital twin opportunities.

Also last November, Schneider Electric announced its acquisition of a controlling stake in ETAP Automation, whose platform, it said, “models, simulates, control, and optimizes customer electricity power systems based on their digital twin equivalents.”

Randy Rhodes, a technical executive with the Electric Power Research Institute, said in an Energy Central post last month that electric utilities won't be the only ones using digital twins of their grids.

“With entire digital ecosystems developed in support of smart government and smart cities, and as electrical grids expand to include more distributed energy resources, it is likely that government and certain utility customers will expect electric utilities to deliver digital 3D representations of built and planned infrastructure,” Rhodes said.





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Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Mar 10, 2021

Thanks for the post Peter, this is a topic you could write a book on!

Just some quick thoughts. From what I can see the Digital Twin (DT) is already in full swing at many of North Americas Electric Utilities. The DT can provide a number of powerful benefits ranging from grid hardening, risk mitigation & disaster modeling/preparation through vegetation management. There are numerous vendors collecting forms of high resolution data, such as lidar or high resolution optical data, which is being actively used to construct these DTs. The largest hurtles utilities face are related to cost and regulation. Program costs come in three tiers: data collection, data processing and analysis “certification”….these are all before the utility receives the data. Numerous companies are looking at devising ways to lower costs in these tiers, for example, Power Line Pro’s SAS offering for data processing.

The current regulatory environment forces distribution utilities to repair what they identify in a very short cycle (30-90 days). In my opinion, a great example of how to manage this repair problem has been implemented by SDG&E where they worked with their regulator to create a 5 year grid hardening program.

Understanding the electric systems is the vehicle to managing/lowering risks and refining operating models. If we work together as an industry to reduce the impact of the current hurtles, DTs can provide electric utilities with the means to be more reliable, safer and cost effective.

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Mar 10, 2021

Thanks for the comment, Robert. Do you know if SDG&E is using digital twins in its grid-hardening program?

Robert Brook's picture
Robert Brook on Mar 11, 2021

I'm not involved in any of the work, but I understand through the grapevine that they are eve if they aren't calling it that. They have been collecting Lidar for a number of years and that would be foundational for DTs.

Peter Key's picture
Peter Key on Mar 12, 2021


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