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Why This Winter Might be the Ultimate Motivator for the Self-Healing Grid

image credit: Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Utility companies in geographic regions that experience energy peaks in winter are used to the challenges of ensuring reliable supply. Yet winter months can often highlight infrastructure vulnerabilities such as brittle and failing fuses, blackouts as a result of cold contracting wires, and fracturing utility poles. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently reported that U.S. power customers experienced an average of nearly five hours of interruption in 2019. Many factors cause power interruptions, including weather (such as snow storms or hurricanes), vegetation patterns, and utility practices. If predictions from NOAA are any indication, this winter will likely include volatile weather. Additionally, this year’s pandemic has complicated energy use projections

Utilities are preparing their budgets and strategies to respond to changing demands, weather-based fluctuations and the challenges of distributed energy. They need to move quickly to make their grids smarter if they want to keep up with industry changes and energy trends. In fact, this year’s winter might end up being the best motivator for adopting the technologies needed, and available, to make the grid self-healing. 

Adapting to Change 

Gone are the predictable generation and load profiles of the past. New technologies and distributed resources at the grid edge have led to significant generation and load profile variability and uncertainty. This winter, work-from-home and virtual schooling policies will affect residential consumption with more people at home during the day, increasing residential space heating demand and electricity consumption as compared to last year. Additionally, the mix of energy sources used to generate electricity in the electric power sector this winter is different from last year as a result of changes in expected fuel costs and changes in available generating capacity. For example, while renewable generation is growing, it's not capable of fully supporting the grid, especially during the winter months when solar generation isn’t as productive.

While electric grid modernization is happening around the world, a number of inherent challenges exist such as those outlined in the 2018 Smart Grid System Report from the U.S. Department of Energy. These include: 

  • The variability and intermittency of renewable generation

  • Decreased frequency response capability and decreasing system inertia

  • Changing load patterns and unpredictability

  • System dynamics becoming both faster and more unexpected

  • The need to manage a vastly increasing number of endpoints

  • Growing cyber attack risks to the electric grid

These challenges lay out a pretty grim picture, which has many operators and utilities feeling stress. This is compounded by having fewer maintenance personnel available to clear faults or to manually reconfigure the grid. Meanwhile, operators are trying to protect assets. Sensitive loads or generators may be damaged by undetected imbalances or invalid frequencies. 

Throughout all this, continued availability of reliable, quality power is paramount. This all raises the question of -- wouldn’t it be great if the grid could take care of itself?

Enabling a self-healing grid 

At the moment, it’s possible for energy suppliers to tell when there’s an outage, but isolating where and what the problem is can be trickier. To avoid disruptions this winter, amid growing grid complexity, distribution utilities are being prompted to move quickly to make their grids smarter in order to keep up with the dynamic energy market. 

Distribution utilities need to embrace their digital transformation. They can deploy sensors and automate controls that check and evaluate the status and condition of the electricity network. Using this information, operators can identify abnormalities and problems and quickly react to protect power infrastructure. Complete oversight over distribution networks allows for intelligent automation and the ability to make decisions without human intervention. The overall result is a grid that is more reliable, that can heal itself, and that maximizes uptimes while increasing the efficiency and security of power distribution systems. 

Volatile weather, equipment failure, wildlife and other scenarios will continue to cause electrical outages. What will ensure grid affordability, reliability, resilience and security is investing in technological advancements that focus on improved grid sensing, information management, communications, control and coordination. By ensuring that your distributed utility is prepared, you will be able to troubleshoot problems before they occur and get up and running faster after an outage---or avoid them altogether.

Discussions

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 1, 2020

Are these capabilities making the grid self-healing or just self-diagnosing? How much human intervention is still needed? 

Claus Vetter's picture

Thank Claus for the Post!

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