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Tomorrow’s Grids have to be Digital

A new era: By putting intelligence into power transmission, digitalization offers huge opportunities to optimize today's energy system and make it more compact, efficient, smarter, faster – and profitable.

 

By Hubertus Breuer

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Converting substations into data hubs

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If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that we cannot do without digitalization. From video conferencing to e-commerce to tracking-apps for contact tracing, digital tools have helped us to handle the pandemic so far. In various industry sectors experiences have been similar: Remote monitoring, maintenance and control and even virtual acceptance tests of new equipment made performing essential tasks possible that otherwise would have been much more difficult to accomplish.

 

In power transmission, innovations take time to take off. For good reason. As part of critical infrastructure, it needs to be secure, assets have to be reliable for decades, and as part of a system that includes energy production and consumption it cannot and shouldn’t be changed erratically. Today, the maturity of digital initiatives in the industry is still varied. But now and then a revolution comes along that means that even a rather conservative industry such as the energy sector has to change drastically the way it used to do things. It’s time to get serious.

With the push towards decarbonization, an increasing share of renewables and with it fluctuating power flow, a decentralization of production and ever-increasing energy demand, power transmission is becoming more complex. And it needs to be much more flexible than yesterday’s energy landscape. For that, it takes higher capabilities far beyond the current monitoring, control and automation systems. One essential means to adjust to this new era of decentralized networks is digitalization. “Today, grid planning doesn’t happen without factoring in digitalization”, Adnan Chaudhry, VP of Grid Automation Technology at Siemens Energy. “5G networks, IoT-technology, the ever-increasing number of sensors, cloud and edge computing, advanced analytics, intelligent cybersecurity – all of this gives us tools to build the grids of the future, including new business models.”

 

Power transmission used to be a linear chain – from a centralized power plant run based on power demand to a complex network of distributed power generators, mainly wind and solar, which are often installed at various voltage levels. To handle such a complex network, it takes digitalization and intelligence – the human and the artificial kind. Introduced smartly into an existing power infrastructure, it will lead to increased productivity, better safety, reliability and better compliance with regulators. “We know that there are all kinds of efficiencies to be gained from digitalization”, says Puneet Harminder Singh, VP Digitalization at Siemens Energy Transmission. “And that means both ensuring the functionality of critical infrastructure as well as improved profitability for transmission system operators – not a small thing given that there are multiple cost pressures such as low energy prices and increasing legal obligations.”  

“5G networks, IoT-technology, the ever-increasing number of sensors, cloud and edge computing, advanced analytics, intelligent cybersecurity – all of this gives us tools to build the grids of the future, including new business models.”
Adnan Chaudhry, VP of Grid Automation Technology at Siemens Energy

Digitalization for power transmission first and foremost means creating and collecting data – from sensors, automation equipment, and whole assets – and to harness it for actionable insights to optimize grid operations, be it handling a surge in demand, an overheating transformer, or aging switchgear insulation. It may sound like an obvious thing to do, but today, power producers and utilities are analyzing less than 10% of their available data. Let's look at an intelligent substation as an example for how digitalization transforms data into smart data and utilizes it for operations.

 

Today, an electrical substation is represented in a Network Control Center as a single data point, which only gets an operator’s attention if something gets seriously out of hand – for example, if a transformer breaks down. Now imagine this system being supplemented by a data stream from the asset – equipped with all kinds of sensors and connectivity features – directly to a ‘digital twin’ of the substation on a secure cloud platform. This digital twin is capable of simulating the asset in real time, and therefore allows to improve maintenance planning, simplify asset management and increase availability of power supply.

Another example, one can get a better understanding of an impending risk of leaking SF6. Any such leakage has to be reported – while SF6 is an excellent switchgear insulator, it’s unfortunately also a potent greenhouse gas: it has 23,500 times more warming potential than CO2. A digital twin can help to avoid a leakage well in advance. Or if an operator knows the ambient temperature of a substation, it gives them a clue to what degree, if need to be, they can overload a transformer without risk for a certain time. “So if you transform your substation into a smart data hub”, says Singh, “you maximize your equipment’s performance. And if you do that, your operation costs go down – as well as capital expenditures, because you’ll get high performance out of your assets by making them intelligent.”

 

As with the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) the consequence of networking smart energy infrastructure components such as substations, circuit-breakers, energy storage, etc., is what is regularly called the ‘Internet of Energy’ (IoE) today. But for Distribution System Operators and utilities this comes with a caveat – a valid concern for cybersecurity. For example, a 2019 study conducted by Siemens Energy and the Ponemon Institute surveying more than 1,700 cybersecurity experts from the energy sector found that more than half of those surveyed reported that at least one cyberattack on their organization within the previous year was successful. 

“Digitalization means both ensuring the functionality of critical infrastructure as well as improved profitability for transmission system operators – not a small thing given that there are multiple cost pressures such as low energy prices and increasing legal obligations.”
Puneet Harminder Singh, VP for Digitalization at Siemens Energy Transmission

That’s why cybersecurity experts at Siemens Energy – and their counterparts at other companies – are committed to, among other things, supply chain security, security by default, and certification for critical infrastructure and solutions. They are also constantly checking for weaknesses in their products and provide solutions. And with respect to blind spots – risks that experts didn't foresee – more and more AI-based security solutions are also being applied, helping to identify threats at an early stage. “The benefits far outweigh the risks”, says Singh. “Yes, we have to be careful, but we also have to face the challenges of a new energy system that needs digitalization to function. With systematic implementation, we need to agree and define global standards.”

 

In the long run, similar to cars becoming more capable of autonomous driving, power transmission should optimize by itself – and that’s not in some distant future but could realistically happen within twenty to thirty years. It will be a self-managed power transmission system that, among other things, learns in real time from the massive amounts of data it has access to, and adapts accordingly. Sensors, meters, fast communication technology, digital twins, distributed intelligence – processing data in an asset’s vicinity – and AI are all building blocks of such a future system we already have today.

 

“While that may sound like a dream,” says Chaudhry, “it is somewhat unavoidable. The energy system will become ever more complex and dynamic, and only intelligent systems will be capable to react in time towards an unforeseen emergency or run power transmission in a way that is both cost-efficient as well as sustainable. And that’s why digitalization is a tool we cannot do without.”

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April 13, 2021

Hubertus Breuer is an independent journalist specializing on technology reporting. He lives and works in Munich, Germany. 

 

Combined picture credits: Siemens Energy