Tomorrow’s smart grid needs more than smart tech

To harness the real value of the smart grid, innovation, skill, and investment should be considered by the energy sector.
Published: Mon 26 Sep 2016

In five years time, the distribution and transmission landscape will reflect a very different scenario. The trend away from  centralisation is gathering pace as smaller scale distributed generation enters the power scene.

This, combined with smart technology, is leading to the emergence of a more active Distribution System Operator (DSO) model. More balancing activity is taking place at a local level with distributed generation, frequently intermittent in nature, leading to greater variability in flows on distribution networks.

It will be new smart grid technology that will provide DSOs with the ability to access flexible resources such as dispatchable embedded generation, storage and demand side response, allowing them to operate their networks closer to their operational limits and reducing the need for reinforcement.

Regulatory frameworks, focused on total expenditure rather than capital expenditure, are evolving  to incentivise DSOs to look for opportunities and reduce costs for consumers.

For Transmission System Operators (TSOs), having more dynamic DSOs connected to their transmission systems presents both opportunities and challenges. The burden of balancing the overall system is shared but having multiple agents actively balancing in real time has the potential to create conflicting actions and inefficiencies. This is where efficient coordination and data sharing will be key and with these, opportunities will present themselves.

Add weather challenges to the energy mix

While TSOs and DSOs come to terms with the fast changing energy network, the weather is presenting its own set of challenges for the energy industry.

Increasingly, the erratic and unpredictable nature of the weather presents serious challenges for governments, regulators and energy providers as they aim to maintain a resilient energy network.

There is no doubt that network resilience is continually being pushed to the limit and solutions are needed to create a more resilient grid. Harry Taylor, senior manager at Baringa, and Stephen Haw, partner at Baringa, highlight the fact that the response from DSOs to these ‘super’ storms must be ‘swift and effective’. They point to Storm Desmond which occurred in the UK as a case in point where Electricity North West was able to move quickly to deploy additional skilled resources from other DNOs and other areas of the UK and Ireland. Significant quantities of temporary generation were also put into place, supporting  customers for a prolonged period. Together, these so-called dynamic DNOs reacted quickly to provide support where needed.

Innovation-searching for smart grid skills

There is no doubt that today’s more complex energy landscape will undergo many changes as it adjusts to environmental and consumer needs. This calls for a high level of innovation.

Utilities are in dire need of talent-specifically those with the right mix of ingenuity and expertise  to create  world class smart grids.

According to the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, 36% of employers in the energy sector struggle to fill vacancies and 40% have had to increase spending on recruitment to comb the industry for sought-after skills.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, smart grids are cutting edge infrastructure. Morrison Utility Services recently noted that “we can no longer rely on toolboxes of spanners, shovels and picks. A new generation is needed-one that can pilot drones and use things that haven’t been invented yet.”

Second, an image overhaul is needed. The industry is on a major modernisation drive. Smart grids are evolving at a rapid pace and once mature will transform the way we live, work and play in the same way the Internet has.

Because energy is so fundamental to society, people with the right technical savvy are being amply awarded.

However, it’s not about one individual, it’s about creating a smart grid with the help of a multi disciplined team which includes versatile individuals who can work alongside traditional power engineers and team members with advanced digital skills and consult with colleagues with commercial acumen.

Millennials are a good place to start when looking to hire innovators because they have grown up with digital technology and are comfortable with it. It’s second nature. Smart grid solution providers are known for taking the best graduates and training them up. Smart grid utilities are doing this but they need to ramp up their efforts.

But, while it is good to snap up young and smart graduates, it’s also important to up-skill existing staff members. These staffers should be viewed as untapped smart grid potential. The electricity grid is undergoing historic upgrade and industry needs more people with the right skills and qualities.

Human capital investment will pay long term dividends. Smart grids can’t be fully switched on without the right people at the helm, says Stephen Haw, energy practice, Baringa.

Extracting real value from the smart grid

In the future, individual energy vectors such as electricity, gas and hydrogen are expected to be capable of delivering multiple services, with some services delivered by more than one network. This will potentially use infrastructure very differently to how it is today.

Closer and more complex interactions between the different sectors, including partial or complete transitions from one sector to another, are a distinct opportunity, according to The Energy Technologies Institute’s (ETI) energy storage and distribution manager Susie Winter.

The ETI is investigating the implications for infrastructure of closer integration of electricity, heat and transport networks. The infrastructure project aims to improve the understanding of the opportunities for and implications of more integrated “multi vector” networks, thereby informing the best way to deploy new networks and identifying the opportunities for existing assets. The project is part of ETI’s ongoing energy storage and distribution programme and will be led by low carbon energy consultants Element Energy who will also be working with Baringa Partners, CHG Services and Liwacom.

“Whether you are an industry participant with the strategic intent of operationalising innovation or a provider of disruptive technology, one commonality is that unless we can extract the value of the solution through market, business and operating model change, commercial feasibility will be impacted and the excitement could be short lived,” says Haw.

Investment will maximise reliability and grid efficiency

Investment will provide a diverse network, presenting multiple options for network control engineers in times of crisis. A smarter grid will help them respond more effectively in the long term to extreme and often unpredictable weather conditions and equipment failures. For instance, emerging technology such as automated distribution and smart metering can provide more accurate information about who has been affected by power outages, helping operators provide additional options for resilience and more rapid restoration.

Active network management will help utilities on a local level to respond with greater agility.  Substations can help to transfer power more easily in an emergency situation.  Decentralised energy with battery storage and off grid capability may contribute to  greater supply resilience at a local level which will lead to improved overall network resilience in the long run, thereby avoiding unnecessary power outages.

Creating smarter energy networks, alongside adapting communities and cities can facilitate a more robust national infrastructure. Through sustained and well planned government investment, the transformative power of technology should be drawn across the entire network in order to stay ahead of a changing climate.

It is clear that a sustained and holistic effort to innovate and make ongoing investments will help realise the full value of new solutions.


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