It’s getting more complicated, but digitalisation can help

19 September 2018

An ABB perspective.

The complexity of the power generation, transmission and distribution system is increasing dramatically. Adrian Timbus (technology and solutions manager, smart grid and renewables, ABB) uses a striking image to demonstrate one aspect of this: power generation facilities in Denmark in 1990 and those in 2014 (see Figure 1). There has been a transition to decentralised generation, with a proliferation of local CHP units and wind turbines, with a shift from bulk, centralised generation to distributed and weather dependent production.

We are seeing new players in the market, with very different approaches from the incumbents, and a host of new business models posing significant challenges to traditional ways of doing things, notably in the distribution sector, with the emergence of, for example, prosumers, behind the meter, vehicle to grid concepts, aggregators, distributed energy resources (DERs) and energy storage (Figure 2).

At the power grid level, we are also seeing the adoption of new generation technologies that influence the traditional load patterns and challenge current grid operating practices (see Figure 3). For example, intermittent renewables with power electronic interfaces contributing little to no system inertia and new loading patterns driven by the rise of roof top solar, batteries and electric vehicles.

With these drivers what will characterise the power systems of the future? Timbus envisages a more complex system, integrating new technologies and able to accommodate new players and new ways of doing business. He summarises what he thinks will be key features of future power systems as follows:

¦ More complexity

–  Large, interconnected systems

–  Highly distributed generation

–  Broad range of connected devices, from very small entities to bulk, highly centralised assets

–  Various technologies and diverse activities coming together (batteries, power electronics, digitalisation, communications, weather forecasting, etc) 

¦ A larger ‘ecosystem’

– Consumers increasing their role in the energy system

– Millions of legally independent actors connected and requiring co-ordination

– Increasing electrification, extending to, for example, transportation, heating

¦ Increasing demands

–  Greener, more sustainable energy

–  Openness to unforeseen new players

–  System users still expecting affordable and reliable supply of electricity

–  Improved power quality 

¦ New concepts

–  Service oriented models

–  Grid users also business service providers

– New division of labour between the transmission and distribution levels

– Peer to peer approaches

Faced with all this, what’s to be done? Timbus believes that digitalisation is the key to addressing these issues and is the enabling technology that will underpin the transformation to the new electricity system (Figure 4), with emergence of what he calls the “internet of energy” (Figure 5) – a “digital ecosystem” that integrates players and their assets, supporting their business goals.

The digital ecosystem includes digitised generation, digitised transmission, digitised distribution and digitised “grid edge” (ie, the interface with the consumers, prosumers, electrical vehicles and all the distributed assets connected at the edge of the grid). It adds value across the board, from planning of new generation assets down to the level of operations and maintenance for those assets.

At the operations level, for example, Timbus notes the increased use of digitally enabled “autopilot functionalities” to manage the vast amounts of data generated by a fleet of several thousand wind turbines or the myriad of grid connected distributed energy resources.

There are of course challenges in digitising the energy sector, for example, cybersecurity worries, “an employee base with high average age and relatively low digital savviness”, “cultural differences between power specialists, IT and security”, and “different notions of speed between power and IT engineers”, but ABB can point to a number of initiatives. 

ABB offers a scalable and open digital platform, ABB Ability, which can, for example, be used for the management of distributed energy resources.

An Ability-based system called ADMS (Advanced Distribution Management System) includes a newly developed module, DERMS – Distributed Energy Resource Management System. This enables distribution network operators to achieve the full benefits of distributed generation (see Figure 6).

“Adding new assets into the system used to be an engineering job”, says Timbus, “but now the numbers of units are so great it requires automation and a digital system.”

Next Kraftwerke of Germany uses ABB energy optimisation systems to aggregate more than 5140 producing and consuming units in eight countries in Europe into a virtual power plant, providing grid ancillary services, power trading, and secondary and tertiary reserve, but without generation assets of its own. The network has a production and trading capacity of around 4000 MW of renewable energy and has grown seamlessly from a few units in 2009 to one of the largest in Europe, thanks to the system’s scalability. It is representative of a new wave of power business participant that is making full use of the opportunities that digitalisation brings. 

Based on a presentation by Adrian Timbus, How digitalisation supports energy transformation, an ABB perspective, First Friday Club, London,13 April 2018

Figure 1. What increasing complexity looks like
Figure 6. DERMS (Distributed Energy Resource Management System)
Figure 5. The “internet of energy”: a digital ecosystem integrates players and their assets, helping them achieve business goals
Figure 2. New challenges to traditional thinking in the distribution network
Figure 3. New generation technologies and loading patterns challenge current grid operating practices
Figure 4. Why we need to digitalise the energy system. Because digitalisation supports ambitions in terms of sustainability, quality of supply and cost of energy

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