In an Era of Distributed Energy Resources, Utilities Increasingly Leverage Analytical Solutions | Part 4: Four reasons to consider digital twins in utilities

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Teresa Elliott's picture
Sr. Director, Marketing, Bentley

Teresa Elliott has spent 20+ years in infrastructure focused on design, GIS and asset management solutions across various infrastructure segments including communications, electric, gas and water...

  • Member since 2019
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  • Nov 11, 2019

Grid transformation, digital advancement, and delivering safe and reliable power are not mutually exclusive efforts. To become a data-driven grid operator, utilities must advance digitally and in concert with ongoing operations. However, information silos can limit collaboration and hinder integrated planning. Utilities need to access the data currently isolated in disconnected IT systems, as well as integrate and connect the environments that support planning, design, operations, and maintenance. This open, connected data environment (CDE) then enables digital twin workflows. A digital twin is a digital representation of a physical asset, process, or system, as well as the engineering information that allows organizations to understand and model its performance. This information also allows organizations to build on others’ work and provide an overall model and workflow, showing the impact and benefit that one group has with another group or design team.

In the first three articles of this four-part series, we have explored why now is the time for utilities to advance digitally; the need to remove information silos and create an open CDE that enables digital twins; and provided examples of the value that can be derived from employing digital twin workflows in support of asset maintenance and inspection, as well as capital planning for distributed energy resources. All the parts of this series, In an Era of Distributed Energy Resources, Utilities Increasingly Leverage Analytical Solutions, can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The utility of the future will undoubtedly be digitally-enabled, and it will be helpful to have the information necessary to make the case of why digital twins to utility executives. In this fourth part to the series, we discuss four reasons why utilities executives should consider digital twins and digital advancement:

  1. Digital twins are taking center stage: advancing BIM.
  2. Grid advancement needs digital twin workflows.
  3. Digital twin technology can create value now
  4. Status quo is not going to help you realize the value of digital twins

To further this justification for digital twins, download the new Energy Central whitepaper, Digital Twins: Why Every Utility Executive Should Care, which explores digital twins for utilities.

  1. Digital Twins are taking center stage: advancing BIM 

Digital twins are taking center stage, enabling asset-centric organizations to converge their engineering, operational, and information technologies for immersive visualization and analytics visibility. Made possible by the convergence of 3D and 4D visualization, reality modeling, mixed reality, and geotechnical engineering, digital twins enable an immersive and holistic view of infrastructure assets above and below ground, spanning beyond projects into operations. Digital twins are not a replacement for BIM, but are instead next in this evolution from CAD to BIM.

Digital twins bridge physical and digital worlds. They also span entire asset lifecycles and provide a way to visualize an asset, check its status, perform analysis, and generate insights to predict and optimize asset performance. The CDE is what enables a digital twin because it can enable users to federate GIS, CAD, BIM workflows, and operational data, encompassing both existing and proposed infrastructure information.

What makes a digital twin different than just another BIM workflow is that a BIM model is usually a snapshot of a moment in time. Digital twins can consume BIM workflows, but also provide fidelity. Digital twins can be continuously updated from multiple sources, including sensors and surveying, to represent the near real-time status, working condition, or position of assets. The digital twin consists of context, components, and chronology:

  • Context is the mirroring of the physical reality of a site’s or asset’s existing conditions, also called a digital context. This is made possible with reality modeling.
  • Components includes aligning the virtual engineering data, or digital components, to make “dark data” available for analytics. This is possible with an open CDE.
  • Chronology is the synchronization of that data to reflect the continuous change that is intrinsic to every project or operating infrastructure asset. This is possible with cloud services.

Bentley’s infrastructure digital twin advancements converge the digital context provided by ContextCapture and the digital components aligned through ProjectWise and AssetWise. Now, Bentley’s iTwin Services helps maintain the integrity of the digital twin.

  1. Grid advancement needs digital twin technology

Planning and managing bidirectional power flows is both an opportunity and a challenge for utilities. With more distributed engineering resources (DER) connecting at the edge of the distribution grid, utilities need improved visibility and better collaboration between traditionally siloed generation, transmission, and distribution planners. Better known as integrated planning, this collaborative approach to incorporating large amounts of DER at the grid’s edge while also efficiently operating the power system’s existing assets requires improved data sharing and management.

Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall GmbH is an innovative, expanding public utility based in Schwäbisch Hall, Germany. Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall generates electricity and heat in combined heat and power plants (CHP) and power generation plants from renewable energy. The company supplies electricity, natural gas, heat, and water to approximately 500,000 customers and operates natural gas-filling stations, electric charging stations, baths, and parking facilities. The network area includes Schwäbisch Hall and other areas like Ottobrunn and Neubiberg near Munich. Since the end of 2012, biogas and biomethane, which is biogas upgraded to natural gas quality, have been used instead of natural gas or heating oil for power and heat generation to avoid fossil fuels. The share of renewable energies in the heating plants increased from 11% in 2012 to more than 50% currently. By 2030, Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall wants to convert electricity generation in the region to 100% renewable energy. Power will be generated by combined heat and power, photovoltaic (53,000 megawatt electricity for 15,000 households), biomass, hydropower, and wind power processes. The decentralized feed-in of photovoltaic and other plant types, as well as the expected required charging stations for electromobility in many households, are creating new demands on electricity grids. To guarantee the security of supply, quality, and performance of the networks, the project team used Siemens PSS®SINCAL software to calculate the medium-voltage. The challenge is to eventually map the entire network as a low-voltage grid in PSS®SINCAL. The team is using data from the existing GIS OpenUtilities sisNET® from Bentley, as well as estimated consumption data and feed-in data. Currently, data transfer and continuation happen through manual processes, which take a considerable effort; therefore, the team wanted to simplify the redundant management of its data. Stadtwerke Schwäbisch Hall and Bentley have agreed on a pilot project using Bentley’s new software OpenUtilities Analysis. This portfolio of utility solutions will help utilities better manage DER interconnection requests, assess potential impacts to the distribution grid, and plan for needed upgrades to accommodate growing numbers of customers who both consume and produce energy.

Many utilities who face the challenges associated with DER still have silos that inhibit information sharing, which is necessary to fully integrate DER workflows. DER interconnections cannot remain a siloed information management process. An open CDE can make trusted information available whenever and wherever it is needed; however, utilities need to create this type of environment to constantly update information and quickly perform grid analysis, simulation, forecasting, and model validation. For more on this topic, explore this e-book, which explains why electric utilities need digital solutions to embrace grid modernization in an era of DER.

  1. Digital twin technology can create value now

Digital twin technology can help utilities save millions in interconnection studies – from labor costs, to model building, to asset management. Digital twins support digital workflows, which are characterized by data captured or created for one purpose that is being accessed or used by other applications for different purposes, including immersive digital operations, inspection and maintenance, and capital planning. Utilities can support both projects and operations by improving collaboration on projects and informing operations and maintenance. There are several examples of advancement with digital twin technology occurring in utilities across generation, transmission, and distribution and in both project delivery and operations. 

As more clean power is produced, some existing plants are undergoing modernization to continue to provide safe, reliable, and cost-effective power to its customers while meeting growing demand. As some plants begin eliminating coal consumption, they are modernizing to combined-cycle generating facilities and providing other updates, such as optimizing water use in generation processes, producing less wastewater, minimizing or eliminating solid waste, and reducing air emissions. Projects of this scope and magnitude need a digital twin to keep projects on track and deliver superior designs. With improved visualization and multidiscipline collaboration, engineers, customers, and equipment suppliers can more effectively coordinate and improve design phases. Design reviews across owners, engineers, builders, and plant operators can improve constructability and site safety, leading to cost savings. Collaborative model reviews can also help reduce the number of drawings releases, saving resource hours and cost.   

Pestech International used a digital twin to help improve workflows on a Malaysia substation project. Pestech International Berhad was awarded a RM 7.9 million contract to build this next-generation substation in Olak Lempit. Facing a tight 15-month schedule and knowing the significant benefit that this project would have for generating additional power in the region, Pestech undertook a digital approach. There were several challenges, including topological, environmental, and economic considerations. The existing and planned sites were surrounded by palm oil plantations and villages. Most importantly, changes needed to occur without disrupting service to customers. By deploying digital twin workflows, numerous benefits have been realized, including a 50% reduction in drawing creation time, a 60% reduction in revisions due to clashes and interferences, a reduction of cable schedule reviews from days to hours, and a 10% to 20% reduction in cable and electrical component waste. These reductions have helped Pestech realize a RM 200,000 total savings. 

EPCOR Utilities has recently exceeded compliance requirements on equipment interruptions. EPCOR builds, owns, and operates electrical, natural gas and water transmission and distribution networks, water and wastewater treatment facilities, sanitary and stormwater systems, and infrastructure in Canada and the United States. Electric distribution systems like EPCOR’s have over 100,000 assets that are spread out along the streets and alleys of their service territories. These assets degrade with weathering and electrical loading, often having useful lives of 35 to 45 years. EPCOR historically employed a combination of age-based and condition-based lifecycle replacements. This practice was largely a run-to-failure model, waiting for assets to rust, leak, or electrically fault to where simple field repairs and splices were no longer enough. EPCOR’s asset management team implemented an ISO 55000 risk-based asset management business process on the existing AssetWise performance management system. The project conducted an asset condition assessment by statistically analyzing over 10 years of data to develop failure probability curves and to define the statistical relationship between asset condition and probability of failure. The integration of SCADA data provided valuable electrical loading information in near real time. The team also implemented an asset health index to score the assets out of 100%. The resulting asset health scores were shared across the organization on dashboards. The project analyzed 117,000 unique assets within six asset classes: aerial transformers, underground transformers, switching cubicles, poles, network transformers, and underground cables. The current annual risk cost of all six evaluated asset classes totaled around USD 95 million. Using the health scores against failure probability curves, the team derived a more accurate probability of failure, identified assets at risk, and provided valuable input to capital asset budgeting. Additionally, their Interruptions Duration Index (SAIDI) for defective equipment showed that outages were down 43% (0.153 hours/customer) from 2016 and less than half (0.394 hours/customer) of the peak of 2014, well below the regulated threshold of 1.15 hours/customers.

  1. Status quo is not going to help utilities realize the value of digital twins

Already, utilities have been pioneers in the realm of data collection with aggressive deployments of smart meters, sensors, and radio-frequency identification. With these collaborative environments, whether during design projects or for ongoing operations and maintenance, utilities are creating efficiencies that have less impact on both capital and operational expenses. This practice is helping to address the funding gap and, more importantly, advancing both grid modernization and digital advancement while delivering safe, reliable services to its customers.

Digital advancements can be happening in many areas within a utility. Yet, they are still operating within information silos. Digital advancement represents an opportunity for utilities to continuously change and improve how they work by unifying existing data silos (not replacing them) into a model. This situation helps utilities find ways to collaborate and share data more effectively, optimizing projects and the performance and life of assets. Digital twins have the potential to offer huge benefits to utilities. The challenge is knowing what to do and defining the next steps. 

Many utilities have good document management systems that support regulatory processes and good enterprise asset management systems that support maintenance. In many instances, however, this data is inaccessible to the people who need it or is not up to date. Now is the time for going digital. It is time to eliminate information silos and realize the vision of being a data-driven grid operator. Here are a few suggestions on getting started:

  • Consider a federated approach using platforms like Bentley’s ProjectWise and AssetWise, which deliver early benefits for finding information.
  • With existing assets, use reality modeling as a starter for digital twins to capture as-is conditions.
  • Explore digital twin technologies that can address critical business issues, such as improving inspections and maintenance of substations or integrating DER interconnections into your planning and design processes.
  • Expand electrical analysis across transmission, distribution, substation, and generation for a unified approach when considering wind, solar, and energy storage to existing assets.

The utility of the future will undoubtedly be digitally-enabled and it will be helpful to have the information necessary to make the case with utility executives answering why digital twins. Download this Energy Central whitepaper, Digital Twins: Why Every Utility Executive Should Care, which explores the digital twin in the context of utilities.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 11, 2019

Many utilities who face the challenges associated with DER still have silos that inhibit information sharing

This seems to sadly be the story for a load of issues across utilities-- departments aren't sharing enough and they're running into duplicative work being done and inefficiencies cost money that gets passed onto the customers!

Digital endeavors can suffer from the same fate, but it sounds like you're saying they can also finally offer a solution to a slow-to-change industry, is that fair to say?

Teresa Elliott's picture
Teresa Elliott on Nov 13, 2019

We believe so based on conversations our teams have had with utilities.  The issue at the heart of it all is data silos...and data quality.  That's a big issue to solve for any utility (entity really).  But the first step is recognizing the potential value that can be gained from removing silos, ensuring data is accurate.  The first steps to accuracy is providing ways to more easily capture, update, etc.  And we are excited that we are working on tools (digital twin services) at Bentley that will help with this step.  The second steps are then to integrate things like DER planning into the capital planning processes (more holistically) - also something we heard, they are still sort of kept separate.  The good news is we, in partnership with Siemens, have a solution that can help with some of that DER integration.  We will be talking more about all of this at DistribuTECH in January both Bentley and Siemens. Come hear our HUB presentations. Those should be posted soon.

DistribuTECH Knowledge Hub:  Digitalizing the Grid , Presentation -  Advancing DER Integration with an Electric Network Digital Twin - When: Tuesday, January 28, 2020  | 11:00 – 11:30 a.m.

DistribuTECH Knowledge Hub:  Expanding the Grid - Presentation - Digital Twins: Why Every Utility Executive Should Take Note - When: Tuesday, January 28 | 4:30-5:00 p.m.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 13, 2019

Thanks for your reply and the additional information, Teresa!

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