Energy companies must dare to be digital
Shopping, banking, transportation. Consumers are using online solutions to manage almost every aspect of their lives. William Howard, Senior Product Manager at GE Power Digital and POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe Advisory Board member, explains why the power sector must make sure to keep up.
This is the digital century. From shopping to banking and in some cases even voting, people do everything online. And the power industry isn’t exempt from this digital transformation. Consumers demand digital solutions to help all aspects of their lives – including managing their energy consumption.
With the rise of the smart grid, rooftop solar and energy storage, technology is enabling customers to create their own micro-grids, generate their own energy and trade it with each other to balance supply and demand across their communities – and make a profit while they’re at it.
Of course, this is a threat to power producers’ commercial interests. But they mustn’t shy away from the challenge. They should dare to be digital. Because it’s only by embracing transformation that the energy industry will be able to meet consumers’ demands for affordable, sustainable and reliable energy on-demand now and in the future.
If the power sector gets it right, digitalisation could have a huge impact on the way the industry operates. But such change can’t be done half-heartedly.
What is digital transformation?
Digital transformation is more than just implementing technology, it is also about people and processes that enable you to reshape your business models to provide more value to customers. This entails using data and analytics across an extensible platform to generate insights, drive better decisions and deliver business outcomes. More importantly, it is now about being able to adapt quickly and continuously improve across the electricity value network, from generation to grid to consumption.
A power business could begin by connecting and capturing existing data already streaming from its equipment in order to understand the health of an asset, predict when it might fail and schedule preventative maintenance accordingly. The company would then be able to both more accurately forecast, and so increase, its availability to the market and reduce maintenance costs by fixing issues before they arise.
This approach could begin to play into a broader business strategy that isn’t about implementing single solutions but aims to use an IIoT (industrial internet of things) platform to tie them together – yielding aggregate gains as small efficiency improvements add up to much bigger benefits.
Such an approach can be gradually improved over time. Digital systems enable the mass roll-out of new solutions. Historically an employee might find a fix for an issue using Excel or a home-grown solution. But that ingenuity wouldn’t be disseminated more widely across the business. Connected companies can quickly share solutions so that good ideas can have a great impact.
Crucially, digital transformation can help businesses build better relationships with consumers. And this doesn’t mean merely capturing customer data to send them a birthday message. Already we’re beginning to see quick and simple billing delivering real value to consumers. But it’s the next step that is really exciting.
Digital connectivity and the internet of things means that power providers can measure the energy usage of individual appliances and notify consumers if something goes wrong. So if the freezer in a smart home shuts down for a few hours when a customer is at work, technology exists that could let a business inform them that their food may not be safe to eat. Utilities providers should want to play that role.
That is the sort of value-add that can make a real difference to consumers’ lives – and move energy businesses away from selling kilowatt hours towards becoming a service provider at the centre of modern home life. But power providers will need to be bold in rolling these services out if they’re to seize the opportunity.
Taking the plunge
Of course, change is never easy. Especially without regulatory guidance. But on the other hand, it’s difficult for governments to regulate something before they have seen how it works. The industry shouldn’t wait for governments to tell it what sort of industry to develop. It should take the opportunity to carve out the space in which it wants to operate. In short, it should take the plunge. Regulation will follow.
Many businesses are understandably daunted by the scale of the challenge. But going digital can start with the low-hanging fruit that both keeps regulators onside and provides an immediate return on investment. Such returns should become apparent before long. Many available cloud solutions are relatively quick and cost-effective to implement – and don’t take long to pay for themselves.
The real risk comes from the potential cost of lost opportunities. Power providers not only have a chance to greatly improve how they utilise and operate their generating assets, but a unique chance to provide new and real value-adding services to customers – becoming a central part of their lives in the way that the banks and tech giants have become. Sooner or later, somebody will seize it. Energy businesses had better be bold.
As they say, ‘who dares wins’.
POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe, the continent’s industry meeting place, is putting digitalisation high on the agenda for the 2017 instalment in Cologne, Germany on 27th to 29th June.
Presentations will chart the latest developments under the theme of ‘mastering the digital era’ and ‘demystifying the energy cloud’. While diverse power industry stakeholders will debate the best ways to maintain secure communications within the industrial internet.
About POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe
Europe’s power sector is re-defining itself, aligning with the complexities of a digital age and opening up strategic and technical opportunities.
The POWER-GEN Europe and Renewable Energy World Europe conference and exhibition will take place on 27th to 29th June 2017 in Cologne. The event remains the destination of choice for stakeholders to gain and exchange key insights and make sense of the energy transition.
Utilities, equipment producers, service providers, city energy coordinators, consultancy firms, financiers, data handlers and grid operators will share their experiences and knowledge, and discuss the industry’s current and future needs.
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.