Demystifying the Digital Future for Utilities with Joe Travis of Bentley in Preparation of DISTRIBUTECH - [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Expert Interview]

Posted to Energy Central in the Digital Utility Group
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Matt Chester's picture
Energy Analyst, Chester Energy and Policy

Official Energy Central Community Manager of Generation and Energy Management Networks. Matt is an energy analyst in Orlando FL (by way of Washington DC) working as an independent energy...

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  • Jan 30, 2023

In utility board rooms across the country, you’re bound to hear the word ‘digital’ thrown around in nearly every conversation. While this embrace of modern and intelligent solutions is a welcome one in the energy industry, the true leaders in this space are careful not to treat digitalization as a buzzword but rather a feature to be imprinted into their DNA. But leaders may have the best intentions without knowing how exactly to make that happen: that’s where digital utility thought leaders like Joe Travis and his team at Bentley Systems come in.

Joe is the Vice President, Energy, at Bentley Systems where he is always looking ahead to the future needs of the power sector to create and implement the optimal software solutions. If anyone knows what it is to cut through the hype and get to the heart of where these digital tools can enhance utility operations, customer experiences, and a healthy grid it’s him. Bentley is appropriate labeled as a Trendsetter at the upcoming Distributech Conference in San Diego from February 7 to 9, and so their exhibit will undoubtedly be one of the key ones for attendees to visit. To give a preview as to what Distributech attendees can hope to learn at the Bentley booth, Joe agreed to sit for an interview with the Energy Central team to truly get to the heart of: what does true digital for utilities look like and why should we care?

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Matt Chester: With all the complex and innovative tools that get fit under the label of digital for utilities these days, it brings up a natural pushback: aren’t utilities already digital? So can you clear up for us what you mean about utilities going digital and how that’s different from the status quo?

Joe Travis: When you compare the utility industry to some of the other major industries that have gone digital like healthcare or automotive, the truth is that utilities have been a little slow to make this major transformation. What we're really talking about is making sure that we have a reliable grid that is resilient to all kinds of different factors. At the end of the day, it's all about the end user. Customers expect to be able to flip the light switch and have reliable power and utilities need to embrace the digital tools to make that happen.

There are so many moving pieces and parts that are often independent of each other. Different CAD systems, GIS systems, SCADA systems, outage management, and more, and they create a variety of places where data is being generated and captured. The transformation that we're starting to see now is that these departments are becoming much more dependent upon each other for reliable and clean data. So by having some tighter integration and interoperability, you're able to increase efficiencies and reduce redundancies, errors, and wasted time. If everyone is in their own department creating their own silos of data, you may be duplicating the work or introducing errors along the way. So, what we start to see now is that when utilities truly go digital, we start to see interoperability of systems, different data sets being shared and  the process is becoming much more efficient and the output is improving with a true single source of data in the end of the day.


MC: You mentioned the need for grid reliability, which has been in the headlines, as has been an influx of  funds from the Inflation Reduction Act. Are these the outside stimuli making this the right time for digitalization to level up? Or are there other motivations pushing this next stage of digital maturity?

JT: The pressure is on to have that reliable grid and so I think from the Bentley standpoint we actually take this from multiple different perspectives. We are helping utilities maintain their current grid infrastructure, while also providing them with the tools to design new facilities with resilience and reliability. We design new distribution systems, new substations, and we're able to build those with the proper structural capabilities and the right types of protective devices. We really start to introduce new technologies like IoT devices, different sensors, different ways to predict when you're going to have a type of an outage, and so there’s a focus on what we can design new with the best in mind and the strongest reliability in mind. But I think at the same time, we have to try to make sure that we can maintain the current grid, maintain, the miles and miles of infrastructure that's out there that has basically grown organically over time.

That’s really where we start to have two-pronged approach, ensuring that reliable grid today remains stable and also then plan for the future. You mentioned the recent federal policies that now provide additional funding that starts to be inserted towards some aspirations that I think utilities have had over the years. Now they have the ability to start really thinking about those, and part of that comes in treating the grid as truly interconnected. Traditionally, Matt, we've seen that some utilities consider themselves just distribution or just transmission. We know that from the generation side of power through transmission through the substations into distribution and all the way to the customer’s meter that really should be treated as an interconnected grid, and there's so much more now that can be done when you look at it as a as a whole instead of just the sum of the parts. 


MC: So tell us what Bentley Systems is doing that’s unique in this area. 

JT: We're helping utilities design substations with the structural integrity and the right equipment, especially protective devices. We’re assisting utilities in both greenfield construction, as well as maintenance and operations in brownfield situations, both with safety as a top priority. We're making sure that these substations are also available for expansion over the years, because what we have seen is some utilities who have placed hundreds of substations on their networks find themselves constrained in many cases for expansion, especially as we look at distributed energy where you have sources coming in from solar on roofs. What we have to make sure is that we have the ability to design for the future.

For example, we have partner in Australia called Essential Energy. They have close to 400 substations that are dispersed through the outback of Australia and to do operations and maintenance on these substations, it's very important to know what you have currently and the type of room that you have for expansion. And in some cases, it takes a lot of time, energy, effort, and money to get out to these substations just to figure out what's out there currently today. And so before you roll a truck 400 kilometers into the outback you’d better make sure you have what you need to do the job the first time you go. So, what we've seen Essential to do now is using our ContextCapture technology to fly their substations with drones, using photogrammetry and in some cases also ground based data capture techniques to develop and capture a very detailed and accurate 3D model representation of their substation. By doing this on all of their substations around Australia, what you have now is the capability to have that model as the foundation for your digital twin. It's very important to know specifically and in great detail what you have out there so that the time that you're spending on site is not wasted

At that point, you can start to think about expansion and what’s possible next: what type of operations, what type of maintenance needs to be done? We see reality data coming in through ContextCapture, and we also see massive datasets being managed with our ProjectWise application. Then they’re able to perform other detailed design work with our OpenUtilities Substation application. And again, all of that then can live on to be that foundation of digital twin as we move forward. 


MC: Speaking of Digital Twins, can you dig into that a little bit about why that's an area of focus? What's the big deal and why should utilities be paying more attention to what digital twins can offer? 

JT: I think this this digital twin term has been mystified and I think what people should realize is that there are many starting points for the digital twin, and in most cases utilities already have much of this data. It's really the combination of all of these different layers that come together throughout the utility. Whether it's CAD-based data, GIS, photogrammetry, or LIDAR for a 3D model, these are the foundations of this of this digital twin.

But what really brings the digital twin to life is real-time data that we can now bring in from the field through all kinds of different sensors and different ways to really monitor what's going on in the field: temperature sensors, wind speed for weather, those kinds of things are important, but also real-time data that's actually coming from equipment. This really brings your digital twin to life and it shows that you can see not only the foundations that you have these layers that that are out there, but the real-time data is allowing you now to make these informed decisions.

So having this foundation and bringing all these different layers together and then starting to share this out to other groups represents to true importance of digital. It's the knowledge that can be passed on to different groups who are dependent upon this data. It's extremely important to not only build an accurate model that has the right layers, spatial locations, and the cleanest data that you can have, but to be able to expose this and to be able to share this amongst different departments who can also make these informed decisions on the digital twin is really the power of this.


MC: So with all of this in mind, what can our Energy Central Community Members look to learn from Bentley Systems at Distributech in a few short weeks?

JT: We are going to be talking about exactly what I'm describing here. We're going to be showing some case studies of some of the reality modeling that we've done around substations which will show some of the design capabilities that we have for the new distribution systems that are coming online. With OpenUtilities and with the ContextCapture on the reality modeling, we're also showing a lot of interoperability with structural capability package around SPIDA. With the integration now that we have with SPIDA and our open utilities technologies again lends to the fact that we want to have data that's leveraged by multiple applications and to be able to have these types of the integration interoperability across product lines really shows the value of extending this data

We're showing a lot of different product capabilities. We're also talking to a variety of partners. In fact, we’ll have colleagues in both the Bentley and the Microsoft booth showing ways to experience and interact with infrastructure. And some of our team members will be having several sessions that we'll be providing right there on the show floor; I'm giving one and my colleague Brad Johnson's giving one. And so, we'd invite anyone to come in and not only see us in the booth, watch these knowledge hub presentations, but also if you want to meet privately we're definitely willing and able to talk to people on a one-to-one basis as well. 



Thanks once again to Joe Travis of Bentley Systems for sharing his time and insights in this interview. Be sure to check out the Bentley booth and sit in for some of their knowledge hub sessions. And if you’re planning on being at DISTRIBUTECH be on the lookout for him as well as the Energy Central team on the conference floor. We’re looking forward to connecting in person with our Community Members there!

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