Technologies Helping Charge the Power Grid of the Future

Technologies Helping Charge the Power Grid of the Future

Claus Vetter, Head of Automation and Communication, Global Product Group within Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Claus Vetter, Head of Automation and Communication, Global Product Group within Hitachi ABB Power Grids

Over the next 25 years, the energy ecosystem will become nearly unrecognizable as we accelerate toward a greener future. An intensifying climate crisis paired with cost-effective renewables drives this new landscape.

Technology will play a critical role in improving grid resilience, productivity, and availability. Utilities must make investments now to be prepared for the next 25 years. Renewable energy will only become more available, widespread, and advanced.

Research by Hitachi ABB Power Grids outlines this future. Almost 50 percent of coal power generation is expected to cease by 2044. At that time, solar will generate twice what coal now produces — quadruple where we stand today — and wind generation will reach 191 GW, almost double what coal will deliver in 2044.

While utilities race to rethink their infrastructures and incorporate necessary technology, critical to success are three technologies: digital substations, battery storage, and asset performance management.

While many of you likely recognize how important these technologies are, we are at the tipping point.

Utilities are overrun with unprocessed data, potentially misleading business decisions due to its low quality but high quantity. Renewables’ infrequent generation cycles have worn on assets to a point where we need better insights to maintain them. California’s rolling blackouts this year could’ve been forestalled with better storage.

It’s now or never to invest in this technology so you can avert losing out on the future of energy, or at least avoid these pitfalls.

The Foundational Layer for Improved Decision Making: Connectivity

As the world’s climate and the environment become increasingly volatile and challenging, communications have become the backbone to the modern grid.

Decision-makers need accurate information as quickly as possible to make the best and safest calls for the grid, their equipment, and customers. The reliable supply of electricity from conventional and renewable sources via complex networks requires seamless protection and control that is only possible with a standard providing a high-level and comprehensive description of the information exchanged. The international communications standard for power devices, IEC 61850, finally gave us that ability. The implementation of this standard is the primary defining feature of a digital substation.

"By digitalizing our power grids and interconnecting substations with the help of a mission-critical communications network, utilities can integrate more renewables, handle a more complex and decentralized grid, ensure greater reliability and optimize operations"

Digital substations enable electric power utilities to increase productivity, reduce footprint, increase functionality, improve the reliability of assets, and, crucially, improve safety for service personnel. Digital substations exploit the benefits of digital protection, control, and communication technologies, mirroring the trend towards digitalization seen in many other industries.

Today’s utilities depend on automatic systems to monitor, control, and protect their network and the investment it represents. Even though collecting and collating data remains a central task of any automation system, the increasing intelligence of intelligent electronic devices, relays, and remote terminal units offers scope for greater autonomy. Mission-critical communications enable decisions to be made locally or in concert with other local devices, while centralized control and monitoring systems alert human operators to decisions made by the machines.

In addition, improving the cybersecurity of the operational communication network by applying wire-speed encryption suitable for real-time applications through layered mission-critical communication architectures ensures improved network security. 

The addition of renewables with their cyclical generation creates a new strain on the grid, overworking traditionally analog assets like substations. To accommodate renewables and the surge of natural disasters, we need them to work harder and smarter. We need more insight into the asset’s work and health than ever before.

Yet, to make efficient, automated choices, utilities need a comprehensive grid communications network, both wired and wireless. By digitalizing our power grids and interconnecting substations with the help of a mission-critical communications network, utilities can integrate more renewables, handle a more complex and decentralized grid, ensure more excellent reliability, and optimize operations.

Today, communication networks are considered essential for smart grids. They connect distributed energy resources, such as photovoltaic plants, wind power systems, hydropower systems, and combined heat and power systems.

As such, there is a growing need for improved communications strategies, so utilities can gain access to critical information to run their systems and daily operations.

This approach will unify communications to all devices, ensuring fast, secure and reliable connectivity for each operational need. This powerful combination will increase reliability, ease of deployment and reduce the total cost of ownership.

All the Energy and Nowhere to Store It: Battery Storage

New and varying forms of energy can overwhelm the grid. In order to protect it and take advantage of the expected surge of energy production from renewables, utilities need to determine how to store energy when it is overproduced and has reserves for when facing an energy deficit. The solution well known in many circles? Batteries.

Developments in one of the largest U.S. states this year created a sense of urgency for the technology. California’s rolling blackouts were a look at a future without investments in robust energy storage systems. Research found that renewables made up a larger mix of the energy resources in California than ever before, yet when energy peaked at a time when renewables weren’t generating a lot (later in the day), the grid wasn’t able to meet demand.

It’s possible more robust battery energy storage systems could’ve limited this impact, improving grid resiliency and recovery times.

The cost of storage and renewables continues to drop significantly, and there are regulatory incentives to invest now. Doing so while the opportunity is ripe can help save time, money, and resources in the face of the changing grid.

While battery energy storage offers the advantage of reliable and affordable power, ensuring peak productivity is not viable without a sophisticated energy management application in place — that’s why utilities will need management solutions that are flexible and scalable and can be extended to integrate renewables, among other sources of energy.

Managing Information Overload: Asset Performance Management

From analog devices going digital to the internet of things providing insight at the edge, utilities are dealing with data overload. Yet, it’s difficult to actually do anything with the data.

Utilities could answer questions like: How will assets fail? Where are the business savings? How can I mitigate an outage? But a lack of structured data or the ability to analyze it means these questions and problems go unanswered. 

Asset performance management technology can help solve this. It can analyze incoming data from assets, compare it against historical data, and flag the most immediate concerns. These insights avoid replacing assets prematurely and forecast repairs and maintenance.

This technology will be critical as utilities continue to grapple with an array of energy sources and digital assets and technologies — gathering and studying the data will ensure businesses are primed for the ever-changing energy ecosystem.

We’ve seen how renewable energy can cause excess stress on assets due to inconsistent generation. Keeping a close eye on assets will guide preventative maintenance. With technologies available today, utilities can adopt a prognostics approach and reap the benefits of objective foresight — anticipating failures far enough in advance to invest in new equipment before the failure takes place.

Managing the grid of the future will require a host of tools, technologies, and strategies thanks to the greening of our grid and climate change.

Utilities must set themselves up for success now to ensure they are resilient to the changing dynamics of our energy ecosystem.

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