Is collaboration the key to asset management in the decentralised grid?

Asset management in the decentralised grid is a hot conversation topic among utilities - but they may not be able to execute a successful decentralised grid alone.
Published: Wed 06 Jun 2018

Talking about how to accommodate the decentralised grid is one thing - putting it into practice and implementing solutions intelligently is another.

Or so says Stephen MacDonald, Energy and Environment Sales Engineer at Advantech, a provider of industrial PC, smart I/O devices, and monitoring systems.

To respond to both consumer and regulatory pressure to enable the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs), utilities must critically assess their current grid capabilities with a view to becoming more flexible and agile.

Improving asset management with full visibility  to grid assets and coming up with tailored solutions to individual utility needs will be crucial for utilities moving towards a decentralised grid. This may require utilities to shift not only their grid infrastructure and treatment, but also the mindset around energy transmission and distribution. 

In an Engerati interview, MacDonald discussed some of the key issues utilities are facing surrounding the decentralised grid and asset management, offering his expertise as an engineer at Advantech in the U.S..

Data and asset management

We asked MacDonald for his insight into the key issues facing utilities worldwide when accommodating decentralised assets; such as DERs, and increasing distributed generation (DG) onto the grid.

The issue, he argues, isn’t conceptualising a solution: “The end-goal and what it looks like is easy to talk about, but becomes complex where the rubber meets the road - the physics behind electrical power; bi-directional flows, grid harmonics, frequency regulation, voltage spikes, time-of-use, not to mention, re-energising the grid in the event of a brown and black-outs.”

The progression to a more decentralised grid is halted by the logistics, argues MacDonald: “Utilities in the US are mandated to use renewable energy resources and to achieve these mandates, they know that asset management is the primary concern.”

However, as MacDonald explains: “Utilities have gotten so large they need to partner with stakeholders that have the needed domain knowledge in I/O and computing power as well as implement a roadmap that can guide their  integration strategies as they move to a more connected grid.”

As DG permeation increases onto the grid architecture, the physical challenges and safety concerns increase too.  MacDonald says. “If everyone has just one solar panel per house, that’s a lot of new assets to manage, not to mention  data to compile and analyse.”

One solution to assist with DG and DER permeation is through better handling of data. Understanding patterns and establishing insight can provide efficient intelligence to asset performance leading to overall increased grid stability and reliability.

“Today the energy industry as a whole is moving from being siloed to becoming increasingly decentralised and interconnected, which is very exciting,” he says, but this in itself requires utilities to take a critical look at their internal domain gaps and partner where needed.

US vs. DG permeation

In his experience, creating a decentralised grid can vary wildly based on the location, environment, size of any given utility. In the US, the problems can be as much in mindset as in technical difficulties.

Explaining that America’s power grid was built with the concept that the grid and its output is a public commodity, this placed utilities to focus solely on constructing the grid around reliability. MacDonald sees significant issues around grid balancing and reliability for utilities as they reach saturation point and their dependence on intermittent power sources increases.

“It’s a lot harder than just putting solar on the grid here. In Europe, there’s a radial grid with a lot of ‘floating’ assets, while here, we use a grounded system. America’s grid can’t as easily handle the spikes in power because that will trip a fault decreasing the reliability of service.”

Delivering renewable-based energy in the USA then becomes a question of knowing what you have, where you have it, and if it is reliable enough to deliver energy consistently to the consumers.

New mandates such as the renewable portfolio standard are driving utilities evermore to achieve new levels of renewable permanence, with 29 of the 50 states now working to this standard. How utilities get there is widely up to them - a freedom which may work to their detriment.

MacDonald says: “Right now, utilities are just trying to meet the mandates for renewables, but no one is telling them how.”

Co-creating the decentralised grid

So how can utilities across the world, each with their own challenges and individual offerings, achieve a stable, secure grid? The answer, according to MacDonald, is through intelligent collaboration.

Advantech knows this all too well and makes a point to partner with other stakeholders to constantly improve its solutions. MacDonald explains: “There are many brilliant companies working on solutions in the software space, as well as integrating systems, but these services have their niche. Everyone has a bottom line and has to make money   and they can’t develop the best and greatest solution in a vacuum.”

“That’s the thinking behind where we’re at right now, bringing everyone to the table, such as partners providers like Intel, to really make the solution the best it can be.”

Specialising in hardware to assist utilities in managing assets on the decentralised grid, Advantech strategically works with utilities and other stakeholders in its product development.

“We focus on hardware, but in a collaborative effort with our other partners to utilise other domain knowledge and maximise product efficiency,” MacDonald explains.

Watch the webinar

To find out more about Advantech’s approach to enabling the decentralised grid and insight into new asset management challenges and solutions, join our Engerati webinar, ‘Asset management in a decentralised grid - creating a system that works’ featuring Stephen MacDonald and Gary Frederich, Western Region Sales Director at Advantech.