ERDF on the digitisation trail

ERDF's Christian Buchel, deputy CEO and Olivier Chatillon, a director of European Affairs talk about the Flexiciency project.
Published: Thu 19 May 2016

As deputy CEO and chief digital and international officer, Buchel and his team are responsible for accelerating and identifying opportunities for digital integration, to improve services and service quality for ERDF customers. Buchel plays a dual role in the industry as he is also vice chairman of the association, European Distribution System Operators for Smart Grid (EDSO for Smart Grid). The association was created in 2010 and the purpose was to bring the concept of smart grids to reality. Together with his colleagues from all over Europe DSOs are combining their expertise as distribution operators in order to forward proposals to the European Commission to accelerate the transformation of the sector. “We believe that the industry can bring huge positive advantage to Europe as we have incredible skills in Europe, very good technical skills and we believe that this revolution – the digital revolution – is an opportunity for Europe,” Buchel says. Olivier Chatillon is responsible for European affairs and for the ERDF Brussels office. When asked about his role in the company, Chatillon says: “I see myself as being the ambassador for ERDF in Brussels and I am responsible for liaising with the European Commission and being involved in consultation with Brussels on behalf of ERDF.”

ERDF is very active in the DSO sector Buchel explains, elaborating that the DSO is able to combine proximity and capacity to innovate, and pursue research and development opportunities, giving them a unique position in the sector. This is part of the reason for opening an office in Brussels, as it gives the ERDF leadership an opportunity to interact with the European Union and utilise their expertise across various demonstration projects. Says Buchel: “We are currently part of 18 different demonstration projects in which we are testing how solar can be integrated into the grid or how consumers can be more active and empowered by the data which is delivered to them.” “We are working on other demonstration projects for solar or wind power, or to explore how to combine flexibility and storage; and we bring this expertise to a European level by participating in a number of European projects.” EFDF is a member of the Grid4EU project, one of the biggest European smart grid projects, operating across a number of different countries including Germany and France. ERDF is the technical coordinator for this project.

ERDF has also been involved in a project which started in January 2015, called the Flexiciency project. “The name is a contraction between flexibility and efficiency, hence ‘flexiciency,’ Buchel explains. The strategic objective of the project is to build a data platform by which the market players can access data and develop new services. The project is being undertaken in conjunction with ENEL and Austrian service provider VERBUND Solutions; and with IT support provided by SAP. Chatillon continues: “These projects are part of the European Union Horizon 2020 programme. Grid4EU is ending this year and we have been working with several countries to test renewable integration into the grid; how this can be done in a smart way using flexibility from the customer side, utilising storage and different means to optimise the grid.”

As more smart meters are installed across Europe, there will be huge amounts of data collected by utilities. ERDF believe that could amount to many thousands of terabytes of data which will be coming into the utility every year and which will need to be managed in a confidential and secure way. They will need to ensure that this information is aggregated and made available to the market players in such a way that the DSO platform and the market platforms operate together to enable the market facilitator. “The data we are collecting from the customers should give possibilities across the platforms for the market players to produce new offers – developed demand response for instance, or develop more flexibility in the system,” he says.

According to Buchel, bringing consumption data to consumers is a way of helping them manage their own consumption. The added value that this data will provide to help new services or aggregators or new offers from the market will be vital. Buchel is, however, very clear that individual protection and privacy considerations are a priority for ERDF. “I see our role as a DSO is being that of ‘making things possible,’. That means to make energy transition possible, to make innovation possible and to be an enabler for consumers, local authorities, the market etcetera and bring new services to our clients in order to address climate change,” he says.

“Reducing consumption and increasing energy efficiency will be driven by data and it is a natural service for a DSO to provide, so we are working hard to develop suitable skills with data scientists and analysts within ERDF”.

When considering the challenges faced by the sector, Buchel believes that there are legacy challenges which will be true for tomorrow, just as they are today. This is particularly the challenge of quality. “While we are integrating renewables, flexibility and storage into the grid we have to continue ensuring that the quality we deliver everyday, every minute remains the same,” he believes. “We would not be happy to say “because we have to integrate renewables, I am happy to go without power for an hour every day.” This obviously is not acceptable, so the challenge is keeping quality at the current level with all the new technology being added on to the grid.”

“We have a number of new challenges too; we have to integrate renewables and flexibility, which are strategic goals for managing climate change and this is a big challenge. “Another big change, is the question of innovation – we have too integrate the huge opportunities of the world around us – for instance big data, the Internet of Things, social networks and customer experience, while taking worldwide trends into account.

“Our challenge is to integrate these global trends, to transform our utilities and have better services, better quality and acceptable pricing for the consumer. He concludes that this is not just a technical challenge but a cultural challenge too, to move from a traditionally vertically structured organisation, into one that is more horizontally structured.

Addressing the challenges

About four years ago ERDF launched a demonstration project, along with a number of start-ups, SMEs, universities and other academics. This was the first step the company took to building up knowledge through demonstration projects. By working with a number of partners they have been able to share experiences and utilise each other’s unique capabilities. “We launched our digital transformation project 14 months ago, which is a completely horizontal project across all elements of the business, all activities of ERDF through which we are able to test global trends, customer experience, big data and the Internet of things,” Buchel states.

The four elements driving transformation within ERDF are defined as follows:

1. Using existing trends and technology to operate the grid more efficiently. For example, ERDF is testing how big data can enable predictive maintenance of assets and potentially even identify failures before they occur.

2. Identifying how these trends can drive more efficient relationships with customers, generators and other stakeholders Buchel explains: “In France we now have over 3400 generators on the grid –five years ago we had only a couple of hundred. These generators are obviously made up of photovoltaics on roofs, by which our customers are now also generators. We are trying to make the dialogue with local authorities, customers, generators, suppliers and all the users of the grid more efficient.”

3. Driving innovation, particularly in mobility, for both customers and workforce

ERDF actively participates in all the innovation ecosystems in their region, such as the governmentled FrenchTech, a technology hub consisting of SMEs, start-ups,universities etc, all with the purpose of developing French technology and encouraging sharing of skills and knowledge across the various players. Innovation is leading ERDF to develop applications for their customers which alerts the customer or home owner of a power outage, along with information of when the power is likely to be restored and helps determine if the problem is localised to a particular home or if it is wider grid issue. The applications allow owners to monitor power at locations across the country, which is particularly useful for people with holiday homes, or with aged parents.

“This is part of how we are improving the customer relationship that we have,” Buchel enthuses.

“Mobility is a critically important part of our business as almost half of our workforce spends the day is out of the office in the field. We’ve developed internal applications in order to enable staff to do their jobs better when they are out of the office. To this end we have rolled out 10,000 smart phone and iPad devices to our staff who have operational responsibilities, in order to make it easier for them to do their job ‘in the field’. This is one of the ways that we are bringing worldwide trends into the company, not just for the customer but also for the staff.”

4. Enabling data driven action

Buchel believes that by handling data better, they will be able to transform the data into actionable information and for this purpose they are working with a group of data scientists to enable this transformation of the data into tangible information.

ERDF may be the first DSO in Europe that has developed an open data website, which provides aggregated data, by for example providing information about the amount of renewable energy connected to the grid or the amount of generation available at a particular time – providing complete transparency across the business. This kind of information has helped the DSO determine how load is used, and will provide important information for future load prediction and management.

While customer relationship management is an important consideration for ERDF, Buchel believes this needs to be driven by a cultural change within the DSO. He explains it by saying: “As an example, the development of applications is something we would never have pursued previously. Before the development of these kinds of applications customers would have had to try to determine for themselves if an outage was within their home or if it was part of a wider area outage.

“Of course Linky, which is our smart meter, provides access to data consumption for customers via our website and enables us to send alerts to our customers if we see that their consumption is higher than normal, thereby enabling the customer to make an adjustment to their usage – or not – depending on what suits their lifestyle.

The customer can of course choose not to follow the advice but because our job is to be an enabler, the alerts provide our customers with choices.”

About Flexiciency

The four-year project, launched in early 2015, is part-funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 research programme, with the aim of addressing flexibility and efficiency within the European energy market, putting focus on consumers and making use of data from smart metering. More specifically, the project’s mission is to create new opportunities for energy business and expand the DSO’s market facilitator role for new services. As neutral players in

the market, they can support the creation of new business opportunities and innovative services for end users, based on consumer data collected by smart meters. The initiative marks an important step towards the achievements of 2020 energy consumption and CO2 emissions targets through the development of advanced energy services and the implementation of new policies and market regulations that promote the creation of smart grids, in the process boosting jobs and growth in Europe. The Flexiciency consortium is composed of 18 partners from 10 different European countries and covers key competencies from across the electricity value chain of the electricity retail markets to successfully design and implement the demos and develop the different platforms.

Five large-scale demonstrations show that the deployment of efficient novel services in the electricity retail markets (ranging from advanced monitoring to local energy control, and flexibility services can be accelerated thanks to an open European market place based on standardised interactions among electricity stakeholders, opening up the energy market also to new players at EU level.


The interview was carried out and published originally by Metering & Smart Energy International

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