The energy system is becoming more and more complex as it becomes more decentralised. New technologies are facilitating growing numbers of participants – both human and machine – to share ever greater levels of interaction.
As the core players of the sector, the question for utilities is how the grids, and they, need to evolve to meet this complexity. While already transformative steps are being taken with the smart grid, clearly much more is needed and is possible.
A vision of this transformation is offered in a new white paper from Navigant Consulting. The end game is envisioned as a grid with a ‘brain’ – an intelligent, multifunctional infrastructure driven by cloud-based intelligence, aptly named the ‘neural grid’.
The neural grid
According to Navigant, the neural grid implies “a vastly more powerful platform of hard and soft assets leveraging ubiquitous connectivity, the cloud, robotics, artificial intelligence, edge computing and pervasive sensing to perform a variety of energy and non-energy applications”.
Its core is the cloud, where data and intelligence reside largely, managing the intersection of generation assets and distribution networks with energy customers, buildings, transportation infrastructure, city systems and distributed energy resources (solar, wind, microgrids, EVs, demand response programmes, etc.).
Asset ownership is diverse and utility grid data and assets work with third-party data and assets to coordinate energy supply and demand.
The neural grid also enables deep customer involvement and choice and sets the stage for premium services and pricing, states Navigant. Both energy and non-energy tied service offerings will be offered by a variety of actors in the ecosystem that leverage their access to customer and market data.
New enabling technologies
Realisation of the neural grid is clearly only possible with the latest technologies, some still emerging. Navigant highlights five technologies that are enabling the neural grid.
Key is connectivity, with fibre, low power wide area technologies and licensed spectrum solutions (i.e. private 4G, 5G) imperative to the formation of the neural grid.
Low cost sensors integrated into virtually every element of grid and energy infrastructure will provide the data that allows for analytics and artificial intelligence to manage every layer of the neural grid.
Unmanned drones and robots will work alongside humans, learning via vast stores of data in the cloud to perform repetitious maintenance and monitoring tasks and to tackle new problems.
Artificial intelligence also utilises this cloud data along with analytics to enable machine learning and intelligent automation, which will drive the neural grid.
And as it forms, cybersecurity solutions will be critical with ubiquitous connectivity and data collection heightening the need for data security for customers, systems, assets, etc.
Indicative of the scale of these and other technologies, Navigant estimates the neural grid ecosystem will see 6% annual revenue growth through 2025 to more than $0.5trn, or nearly $4trn on a cumulative basis.
Recommendations for utilities
While it has been clear that utilities are facing a changing and more competitive future, Navigant offers some suggestions to navigating the neural grid.
Specifically, utilities are recommended to pursue innovation in two parallel tracks.
The first track requires the utility to develop more efficient and cost-effective solutions to optimise the current business and revenue streams. This is to ensure the core business remains resilient while freeing up resources to invest in new opportunities.
Simultaneously, teams of progressive thinkers should be formed, probably with a strong millennial component, to create “outside-the-box ideas for lucrative, high growth opportunities to be implemented within a 10- to 15-year time horizon”.
Examples of new profit sources offered by Navigant include ownership of distributed resources and partnerships with companies outside of the energy vertical, such as big tech names or telecoms providers.
Opportunities may also be found in development of solutions that not only support internal operations but can also be offered to other utilities. Field force training simulations based on augmented reality might be one example. Drones and robots are another.
Whatever options utilities go for, and ultimately they should aim for multiple offerings, time is of the essence. As has been indicated from various quarters, including Engerati, and as Navigant reiterates: “Utilities must act now and rethink the fixed business model under which they have historically operated. If they do not, the Googles and Amazons of the world will move in.”