GRID ARCHITECTURE ARTICLE 1:  Energy Platforms Are Key To The Future of The Energy Grid

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Lead Architect, eaaS, Siemens Smart Infrastructure CTO

2021 Cleanie Award winner. Siemens Smart Infrastructure CTO Office, technologist, distributed energy expert, researcher, author, and climate change warrior. Genuinely focused on doing good for...

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  • Aug 17, 2020

GRID ARCHITECTURE ARTICLE 1:  Energy Platforms Are Key To The Future of The Energy Grid

by Eamonn McCormickStuart McCafferty & David Forfia

"A platform is a stable collection of components that provide fundamental or commonly-needed capabilities and services to a variable set of uses or applications through well-defined interoperable interfaces. . .  Energy Platforms will be an inevitable feature of the future Grid "

Jeff Taft creator of the Grid Architecture Methodology

FOREWARD:  David, Eamonn, and Stuart recently completed Grid Architecture training from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and are providing this series of articles to share some of that learning and to provoke some thought on how it might be applied within readers’ organizations.  We also mix a bit of our own thinking from our EnergyIoT Reference Architecture series that was published in 2019.  We thank Dr. Jeff Taft, Dr. Ron Melton, and the other class members for their enthusiasm, knowledge, and genuinely GOOD INTENTIONS for the electric power industry.

We recognize that “big change” is ahead in how we architect a distributed grid.  The collaboration of Stuart McCafferty (GridIntellect), Eamonn McCormick (Utilicast), and David Forfia (Utilicast) has led us to this next architecture series of architecture-focused articles.  We start off with this first article on platforms because of our previous platform EnergyIoT article series and as an introduction to the common thinking that DOE’s Grid Architecture has with that series.  After this first article, we will deep dive more into the specifics of DOE’s thought leadership and the “Grid Architecture” methodology.

Manon van Beek, CEO of TenneT (Netherlands and Germany), “With this platform, data can be exchanged between the devices, market players and grid operators. This means that everyone will soon be able to help realise the energy transition, and also benefit financially from it.” – upon the announcement that the EU is developing a blockchain energy platform.

Figure 1:  The EnergyIoT Green Cloud

The concept of a universal, industry-specific, energy services platform is a common topic that technology companies, utilities, and consulting companies are having more and more often.  The architectural complexity of our transitioning grid requires new tools, new technologies, and new innovators to solve the numerous complicated issues facing our industry – customer-owned assets, electric vehicles, bi-directional power flow, lots of data, new markets, distributed control systems, microgrids, renewable energy, energy storage, transactive energy, and so on and so on and so on!  These challenges have emerged overnight in terms of how the electric power industry has measured change in the past.  Utilities and its vendor community have looked to the cloud providers because of their elastic infrastructure and their ability to house, manage, and analyze enormous amounts of data.  Yet, none of the large cloud solution providers have had much traction with the utility industry because they don’t have domain knowledge and their ecosystems are generic – not tuned for an energy-specific user base.  Expect that this too will change as generic cloud solutions companies “verticalize” their systems and as energy industry technologists race to develop their own EnergyIoT services cloud solutions, or as we call it, “the green cloud”.

The EnergyIoT Reference Architecture series describes three different layers or “domains”:

  • Energy Systems
  • Energy Services (the green cloud)
  • Operational Technologies

These three layers interoperate by using a cloud platform that abstracts the complexity of communications between energy systems and the operational technologies.  The middle energy services (green cloud) layer is that cloud abstraction and it also includes data management/storage, analytics, business logic, and other “microservices” to support cloud-based platforms for the energy industry.  This concept is extremely consistent with PNNL’s concept of layered decomposition.  It is also consistent with the Industrial IoT Data Processing Layer Stack concept depicted in the image below.


Figure 2:  Layered Cloud IoT Architectures

The scalability of platforms is a huge benefit to utility customers in two ways.  First, as the need for more bandwidth or compute power goes up and down based on data traffic and computational requirements, cloud platforms are elastic and can spin up or down virtual machines based on the needs.  Second, the utility business’ cost of adding an additional user to the cloud platform is negligible, making it simple and cost-effective to scale the business to match sales.

Another obvious advantage of a platform play, although somewhat contentious, is the fact that these systems are managed by technology experts and companies whose entire business is providing scalable, reliable, fast, and secure services to its clients.  One mistake and the cloud company’s reputation and potentially its customer base are jeopardized.  The obvious contention with utilities moving to cloud platform supported services is the fact that there are many utility IT jobs that would no longer be necessary and there are compliance concerns from a Critical Infrastructure Protection (CIP) perspective.  Cloud solutions to CIP compliance are now in-the-works by several providers, so the barriers for cloud adoption are quickly eroding.

And finally, the inclusion of no-code/low-code DevOps environments with most cloud platforms allows utilities and their vendors to quickly develop applications, workflows and to integrate with other systems and data – unlike the complex and costly way it has been done for decades.  Companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Google, ServiceNow, and SalesForce have been providing microservices and incredibly powerful development services for many years.  These services are well maintained, reusable, and constantly being added to, keeping up or ahead of customer needs.  The DevOps services themselves create enormous opportunities for small companies and individual innovators to create new utility customer and business services that we could otherwise never accomplish in a closed, on-prem environment.

For all these reasons, the advantages of platforms will soon overwhelm the utility industry and adoption is inevitable.

Platform architecture is a topic addressed by Jeff Taft as part of Grid Architecture  which was developed by PNNL for the DOE as a framework that the industry can use to solve its most pressing problems.  To be clear, PNNL does not consider that platform have to be cloud-based.  Instead, platforms can also be a hardware environment or an interoperable layer within an architecture.

Applied Grid Architecture includes practical approaches to identifying where platforms may make most sense in energy. The idea of layers within the architecture is a core concept that can be a key point where platform thinking can be applied. Layering is a structuring concept that applies in computer systems and can be applied more broadly to Grid Architectures in general. Layering achieves a resilience by allowing isolation of the upper from the lower in the context of foundational services and allows the reuse of components needed in a platform based architecture.

To understand better how platforms will play out in the energy PNNL applied different types of decomposition:

  • Allocation of architectural components to layers and functions to architectural components
  • Vertical decompositions - hierarchy of layers
  • Layer re-association
  • Core-Edge Models

PNNL contends that the concept of platforms does make sense in the energy industry and is closely associated with layers.  There are potentially several layers in the energy industries where platforms may be viable and desirable. The key to this analysis of "where platforms work" includes distinguishing core pieces of the layer that are reusable from what could be described as the applications that sit on top of the core layer components. The grid platform should be focused on specific layers and should provide a basic set of services that can be applied to many end uses. Creating reusable elements within the platform increases the value of the platform and creates opportunities for innovation and optimization.

The idea of platforms supports reuse of components, scalability, and interoperability.  This can be applied to many areas within the energy industry and will be a key accelerator of change.  Although the move to platforms can be complex, the reward for companies that do careful architecture analyses and determine where platform architectures may make sense in the emerging energy marketplace will have significant advantage over the competition.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 17, 2020

For all these reasons, the advantages of platforms will soon overwhelm the utility industry and adoption is inevitable.

Feels like this could be cut and pasted into many different utility topics and hold true.

In your review of the market, did you get the impression there are some utilities that will more willingly adapt and innovate towards this on their own, or is the whole industry more being pushed into it?

Murali Venkatraman's picture
Murali Venkatraman on Dec 30, 2020

Very nice article.  Thanks @stuart

Stuart McCafferty's picture
Thank Stuart for the Post!
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