Bentley Systems, Inc.

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In an Era of Distributed Energy Resources, Utilities Increasingly Leverage Analytical Solutions | Part 3

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Energy Central: What is the biggest challenge you have seen in grid operations around the world?

Zubran Solaiman: It is a combination of challenges. First, there is an infrastructure spending gap. Utilities are in the midst of a grid evolution from decarbonization and decentralization. They must respond to climate change and the associated resilience and reliability requirements. Furthermore, infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement, and many existing systems require expansion to support urbanization. As if that isn’t enough, many are rebuilding assets where extreme weather has occurred. Each of these situations require considerable effort and investment. So, how do they keep pace with these investments when there is a spending gap? Owner-operators should address at least part of this challenge with capital expenditure (CapEx) and operational expenditure (OpEx) efficiency.

Secondly, to supplement CapEx/OpEx efficiencies, owner-operators must improve information and share it between departments and with stakeholders. According to various statistics, employees in technical roles spend roughly one third of their working time finding documents and communicating between different departments. This percentage might be even higher if you consider transmission and distribution (T&D) organizations that need to cope with assets and their documents that are often older than 20 years. Although utilities are leading the way in the Internet of Things (IoT) space, the return on investment can be further improved if the IoT information is contextualized with other data (i.e. asset management, procurement, change management, electrical network, weather, forecast, and history).

Third, distributed energy resources (DER) present challenges around thoroughly understanding the impact that bidirectional power flow will have on the grid. Modeling the grid for decentralized energy is increasingly complex and must consider operational variables as well as regulatory and economic factors. Utilities still need to depend on impact and hosting capacity analysis (HCA) to study many power flow scenarios. However, these detailed studies can be costly, require specialized engineers, and are not always necessary for low impact interconnections requests. The process for evaluating DER interconnections is still largely a manual and disjointed set of processes.

None of these challenges mentioned are mutually exclusive. Grid modernization, resilience and reliability, and DER all need better information and more holistic participation across the generation, transmission, and distribution planning departments, including business processes that ensure communication and consistency across planning groups. In addition, strategic integration relies on actionable data, a sound business process, sound and connected models, and coordination between departments. With these elements in place, utilities can drive large operational efficiencies by integrating generation, transmission, distribution, and DER planning.

Energy Central: How is Digitalization changing Utility Operations?

Zubran Solaiman: Since utilities were at the forefront of data collection with the transition to smart grids, information mobility and its potential value was considered by many utilities much earlier than other infrastructure segments. With smart meters, sensors, and radio-frequency identifications (RFIDs), utilities are experiencing the challenges and envisioning the benefits of big data. It is possible to advance operational capabilities far beyond what was once thought possible with cloud services, increased data mobility, and the ever-advancing capabilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Network management systems have become more sophisticated, enabling data tracking, advanced decision support, and operational analytics using high volumes of digital data from many devices and integrating information across environments. As DERs grow in usage, the grid is concurrently becoming more populated with sensing and actuating devices as part of the process of digitalization. The digital representation of the grid will provide massive volumes of data that can be used to better understand grid performance currently, previously, and potentially in the future. Also, big data must contain an information model that documents the grid assets and maintains their status at any point in time. Asset lifecycle management documents when and where the asset was installed, its maintenance and service record, as well as other key information required for comprehensive asset stewardship. And technology now allows this information to be available in an immersive and contextualized manner. In short, a key step in digitalization is bringing data that were in the periphery and making it part of business-as-usual. 

Energy Central: What are some of the ways in which operators can enhance their utilities network design and operations?

Zubran Solaiman: Using high volumes of digital data from many devices and integrating information technologies (IT) and operational technologies (OT) with engineering systems (ET) provides the basis to create a digital representation of the grid.

The digital representation of the grid will provide massive volumes of data that can be used to better understand grid performance currently, previously, and potentially in the future. By combining algorithms and simulation capabilities with the digital context, a “digital twin” is created. As a concept, digital twins have been around for a long time, but the availability of IoT devices has ensured that the implementation of a digital twin is now cost-effective.

A connected data environment (CDE) brings together GIS, CAD, BIM models, and operational data into a near real-time digital twin that encompasses both existing and proposed infrastructure information. Bentley’s Connected Data Environment based on ProjectWise and AssetWise connects the various datasets during all stages of the asset lifecycle. For example, a transformer can have a network perspective, an engineering perspective, an asset performance perspective, a telemetry perspective, and a finance perspective.  The CDE brings all these perspectives together and combines them with 3D reality meshes to provide immersive visualization and analytics visibility. It makes it transparent to relevant stakeholders and shines a light on dark data. This enables data sharing across silos, encourages collaboration, and instantiates a single view of data to all applications and workflows. 

Energy Central: The transmission grid has long been recognized as a major engineering marvel. How do distributed generating resources change how we think about the grid and plan for investments?

Zubran Solaiman: A large part of the electric transmission infrastructure around the globe was built between 1950 and 1960. Documentation, if it exists, is likely to be inaccessible and inaccurate. Considering the trends talked about in an earlier Energy Central Article, we know that the world suffers from an investment deficit where economic growth has outpaced infrastructure investment. Failures due to aging and overloading can cause widespread outages that impact customer service but also raise maintenance costs resulting from reactive corrective actions. Over-engineering the solution is no longer an option because it’s too expensive. Upgrade and replacement projects must be designed with closer tolerance and be reliable and resilient to meet the higher expectations of today's utility customers.

Planning and managing bi-directional power flow is a new priority for owner-operators as decentralized energy continues to expand and the growth of the prosumer has compelled new business models. All of this means that DER must become an integrated part of the business model across generation, transmission, and distribution planning. DER interconnections cannot remain a siloed information management process. An open, connected data environment can make trusted information available whenever and wherever it is needed, but this starts with creating the environment where that is possible. That’s an environment where power systems’ planning engineers trust in the model and the data. To get to this, engineers must identify necessary data sources and federate the information needed for integrated planning. This environment must provide the ability to continuously update the information and manage global changes where engineers can provide model validation and perform analysis, simulation, forecasting, and more. 

Energy Central: Events such as wildfires, storms, and floods point to possible vulnerabilities in the grid. How do these sorts of events affect infrastructure planning and investment? 

Zubran Solaiman: Extreme weather conditions and catastrophic events related to climate change have been a central factor of grid modernization initiatives around the world. Building in resiliency against hazards of all types is imperative for electric power systems to maintain reliability and availability during times of flux. Recent major weather events demonstrate the urgent need for utilities, regulators, and other stakeholders to invest in a more resilient grid. Technology investment is a key enabler for grid modernization initiatives.

As I mentioned earlier, utilities have deployed smart grid technologies from advanced metering at the customer level to enable automatic outage detection and service restoration, to sensors and controls on the distribution system to enable rapid detection, isolation, and restoration of service at the circuit and substation levels. After an event, the data collected through these technologies can be used to find opportunities for further resilience improvements.

From a planning perspective, our planning and analysis applications can help identify the optimized generation mix of distributed energy, for example, aiding in Microgrid planning and design. Therefore, when you plan, you need to have the operational, planning, AI, and weather forecast data. The key is to simulate various power flow scenarios to understand potential impacts of catastrophic events and outages to mitigate possible risks and invest in the appropriate infrastructure.

Energy Central: Why is a connected data environment (CDE) so critical for the efficient management of DER?

Zubran Solaiman: Using asset lifecycle information to plan an asset’s reliability bolsters the value of network data because it is relied on from the engineering design phase to the analysis domain. This use of asset lifecycle information also demonstrates why interoperability with the connected data environment is critical for efficient management of a decentralized grid. In this instance, a set of engineering analysis capabilities will utilize asset lifecycle information combined with GIS data and data internal to the engineering capability. A utility will have regulatory and related internal standards for network design, including operating criteria, load conditions, failure modes and digital catalogs of approved construction components (called compatible units or CUs) that define and guide how planning and design are performed and what parts are usable.

Without a connected data environment, implementation and management of the many interfaces become challenging IT problems when facing a decentralized grid. Making decisions about adding DERs to the grid based on factors like expected network performance, reliability, and power quality is difficult if not impossible. Simulation uses digitalization to model the current grid or show the grid with proposed grid changes, such as a DER connection request, where simulation can accelerate and improve the assessment of a DER interconnection request.

Energy Central: What role does the OpenUtilities suite play in helping with the decision support process?

Zubran Solaiman: Bentley’s DER Optioneering application is a new, cloud-based service that leverages the continued network model maintained by OpenUtilities Analysis. OpenUtilities DER Optioneering is a “stoplight” type service that does a quick impact analysis on the network model. It checks the ability for the network to include the suggested DER at that location while maintaining power quality and reliability parameters as set by you. The returning result is a green “go” light or a red “stop” light. In either case, regulatory compliant records and documentation are created and stored for historical and regulatory purposes. If the result is red, further action from planning or engineering might be required to investigate possible changes to the network.

This process takes place in a matter of seconds and provides quick and reliable feedback on the ability for the network to include the suggested DER. Approval times can be brought back dramatically, increasing customer satisfaction and reducing labor costs.

Afterwards, it’s important to start proactively examining certain areas of interest for DER by combining the capability with solar impact analyses (as available in OpenUtilities Map and Designer) and changing the utility DER approach form reactive to proactive stimulating.

OpenUtilities DER Optioneering can also be used to provide a service to selected solar panel installers, allowing them to do a precheck at time of request by a consumer.

OpenUtilities Design Optioneering permits designers and planners to better collaborate so that network models are cost effective, reliable, and smart.  This application provides the ability to optimize equipment sizing and cost, analyze design for feasibility with the existing infrastructure, and plan optimized system upgrades with costing to make more economical decisions. 

OpenUtilities Design Optioneering advances OpenUtilities Analysis capabilities application one step further with cost-based decision support for planning and designing a complex, multifaceted utility network including the integration of DER. The application provides the ability to analyze both planned and existing infrastructure, optimize equipment sizing, and estimate current materials and labor costs for projects with integrated DER.

Energy Central: To help understand how the suite is used, could you offer one or two examples, preferably illustrating how different stakeholders apply it?

Zubran Solaiman: In a previous question, we discussed the impact DER has on the grid on the whole organization. We talked about designing with reliability in mind and ensuring that we avoid over-engineering. Obviously, this is an expensive approach, but it is also difficult to justify the return on investment.

Designing with reliability moves the focus from a pure design-centric view to consider the entire T&D asset lifecycles – the creation of a full view line-of-sight of the T&D asset over its entire life. Imagine designers and planners having a digital twin of their operations as well as planning information, that is readily accessible and served through a connected data environment and iTwin services. So, instead of traditional document-centric approach, designing becomes more asset-centric. Planners and designers can see crucial information of how a given asset is performing against the systems, simulate how a replacement asset would operate against a performance digital twin, and predict where system failure may occur. Similarly, once the asset is commissioned, the asset information from the project delivery team to operations/maintenance is seamless, and the asset information model continues to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information.

This kind of interoperability between project and operations is more prevalent with the rise of DER and microgrid, where up-to-date information is necessary to make informed decisions and OpenUtilities helps in that progress.

Energy Central: What are the rules, if any, for developing digital twins?

Zubran Solaiman: Digital twins should be built upon a technology framework that is both open and flexible so that they can be easily used and integrated with other systems. The technology should reduce input impedance with a developer’s codebase and help preserve flexibility over time. An open-source approach will likely be the best form factor to address the vast possibilities of digital twins and to foster innovation and novel uses of the technology.

The reality is that data in the GIS or fit-for-purpose CAD/BIM capabilities is often siloed. Unless data can be aligned and synchronized, it will remain “dark data” and any digital twin will not have veracity or fidelity. The platform for digital twins must be an open, connected data environment (CDE). We believe the monolithic single model or single source of truth will be superseded by an open CDE that will federate multiple live data sources and support a variety of form factors from mobile, web, and desktop in a hybrid cloud, and/or on-premises architecture supporting the office, jobsite, and field.

Having high-quality, trustworthy, and aligned data will not be useful if it is inaccessible. Solutions will leverage and provide open-source libraries so that you can tailor digital twins to meet your projects’ unique specifications, providing infinite scalability and connectivity for a multitude of case studies and users. Data will be publishable in open industry standards to increase interoperability across platforms.

Recently, Bentley launched iTwin™ Services, a cloud service that enables alignment, accountability, and accessibility of infrastructure digital twins, iTwin Services aligns disparate digital components and synchronizes changes with a trusted change ledger, capturing how, when, and by whom engineering data has been changed. iTwin Services enable organizations to create, visualize, and analyze digital twins.

Bentley also launched iModel.js, the first open source library available on GitHub for accessing, creating, visualizing, analyzing, and integrating the information systems around a digital twin. Collaborating with the Centre for Digital Built Britain, Imperial College and University College London, Bentley is at the forefront of research and development in infrastructure digital twins.

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