Digital twin technology: Coming to a grid near you

Posted to EPRI
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Randy Rhodes's picture
Technical Executive Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI)

Randy Rhodes is a Technical Executive at EPRI, and designs, markets and leads collaborative research initiatives related to enterprise integration of distribution applications. Represents EPRI’s...

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  • Feb 17, 2021

Researchers on the leading edge of innovation are capturing and transforming the world into digital models. These “digital twins” are machine-readable representations of what surrounds us that can help increase reliability, productivity and performance while lowering risk. They are applicable to a variety of industries and projects—from complex manufacturing to remote drilling, from jet engine design to airport terminal modeling. 

The nuclear sector, for example, is using digital twin technology to update water chemistry tools. This digital twin will provide a more realistic and accurate physical model of a plant’s secondary chemistry, allow for better secondary chemistry control, earlier detection of adverse trends, and improved long-term asset protection.

As digital twin technology applications emerge on the electric grid, there are forces that may drive the electricity utility sector beyond its traditional 2D world. 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.

There’s no doubt: digital twin technology is coming to the grid. Although the challenges are many, EPRI is ready to help the electric utility industry with its adoption.  

Why digital twin technology?

The reasons for digital twin technology adoption are numerous. The digital twin permits asset management and analytics, as well as operation and maintenance of the asset or sub-components of the asset over time. The sensor network for digital twins can extend beyond the grid to the Internet of Things (IoT), but reside within a customer’s Building Information Modeling (BIM). Beyond the sensors, the digital twin also can provide input from procedures developed over time.[i]

The foundation supporting digital twins for the electric grid was laid with traditional CAD software, through the creation of 3D models of the parts and components that make up grid infrastructure. New technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and 3D printing, will likely permit modeling or capturing of most, if not all, of the grid in 3D. Recent EPRI transmission and distribution and infrastructure research has focused on these areas of emerging technology.

Enabling effective adoption

As a start to the grid’s adoption of digital twin technologies, EPRI envisions two emerging workforce roles that will guide development of the digital mirror world: the virtualizer and the virtualist.[ii]  Virtualizers will create content for the mirror world, assembling a continual stream of virtual content in 3D and spatially accurate detail suitable for aug­mented and virtual reality. Virtualists, who are equally comfortable working in virtual and physical spaces, will work in this mirror world through new technologies such as AR. To adapt to these new technologies, utilities will also need to enlist chief digital officers (CDOs), an increasingly prevalent role, to provide strategic guidance for the digital transformation.

Changing workforce roles aren’t the only challenge in the grid’s adoption of digital twin technology. Most utilities have some experience with reality capture from scanning technologies used in survey­ing and maintenance, and some existing enterprise application vendors are introducing AR and VR capabilities. However, CDOs may have limited insight into emerging needs across large utilities, and few organizations have well-established work processes. As a result, utilities outsource much of the work to engineering consulting firms or specialty surveying organizations.

Plus, few utilities have developed processes for moving the data into well-structured digital twin frameworks and equipping those digital twins with real-time data feeds for operational usefulness in the field. With no clear framework for enterprise adoption, technology deployment will only succeed with change management, cultural adjustments, and frequent communica­tion.

Other practical concerns center on the amount of sensitive information and detail needed, the effectiveness of the cloud infrastructure, as well as system operability. Telecom requirements and coordination with government agencies will need to be a focus, as well.

An action plan for digital twin success

CDOs can tackle their very real questions by learning from consortia and working with EPRI, along with their community of vendors and con­sultants. Companies are addressing thousands of complex social and technical concerns regarding digital twins and organizations are forming worldwide to meet development challenges.

EPRI has led numerous projects with experts in AR, VR and related areas. These projects explored use cases considered most likely to yield benefits in employee safety, optimized operations, improved reliability, and other key performance metrics. Feedback from early substation AR pilots indicates that crews entering substations consider streaming real-time data into an AR app essential. Utilities are interested in improving worker safety by bringing data directly from the substation data bus or a data historian into an AR device, but even field-wearable AR devices that provide information to enhance worker safety require validation.

EPRI has outlined a 10-point, step-by-step action plan that will enable utility operators to move their grid structures to a digital twin strategy, with each step supported by EPRI R&D. EPRI can help industry stakeholders define goals, plan necessary changes, and develop an enterprise spatial computing strategy to enhance operations with digital twins.

[i] McKim, Gregory. “‘Digital Twins’ in Energy and Utilities: Trends, Aspirations, Reality...” LinkedIn, February 22, 2019. digital-twins-energy-utilities-trends-aspirations-reality-mckim

[ii] Scoble, Robert, and Cronin, Irene. “The Infinite Retina.”

Founded in 1972, EPRI is the world's preeminent independent, non-profit energy research and development organization, with offices around the world.

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