Energy to grow: where the big grid players can lift SMEs
The UK’s Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) look after thousands of miles of underground cables and overhead power lines. Every day they power millions of homes and businesses. Day to day life at our DNOs is busy, challenging and rooted in tried and tested methods that they know will restore power or prevent loss. Even for those working in the wider energy industry, contact with DNOs is often limited to engineering-led power restoration or the process of getting a new property connected to the network.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are not always the words that spring to mind when thinking of critical infrastructure firms. But, hard at work in these larger regulated players, innovation teams are unearthing and supporting small and medium sized enterprise (SME) inventions that can shake up the industry. Northern Powergrid’s Innovation Project Manager, Andrew Webster shares why innovation is so critical and explains how networks can help SMEs and inventors on their journey to market readiness.
DNOs are preparing for transformation from relatively passive electricity distribution businesses to active, flexible and agile Distribution System Operators (DSOs) – capable of the kind of network management needed to integrate more renewables and prepare for increased electrification of transport. This change means that DNOs across the country are looking for new and innovative ways to deliver more for customers, while ensuring robust cost control for network management.
The drive to deliver ‘more for less’ through bold innovations is backed up by regulation under the RIIO (Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs) price control. RIIO actively incentivises network operators to look up from the day job and focus on long term innovation ideas that will reduce network costs and improve service for future customers. This incentive looks set to continue. The current price control (RIIO-ED1) ends in 2023 and its RIIO-2 successor is muted to build on the positives for RIIO-1 when it comes to innovation.
More than one road to reward
For SMEs and inventors this is great news. It means for those with savvy ideas that could save network costs, DNOs will still enjoy a regulatory environment that allows them to spend time proactively seeking and managing long term innovation projects.
With direct and indirect (i.e. via broker organisations such as the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC) and Innovate UK) investment routes available, dynamic innovators can be in line for a plethora of benefits when working with forward thinking DNOs.
Cash flow is one of the biggest challenges facing an SME in the engineering and manufacturing arena. Space and equipment can be expensive – even just to create an early stage prototype. Involvement in a DNO programme can ensure the cash flow is there to support the development of a product or idea as it makes its way through the Technology Readiness Levels (TRL).
Field testing and in-depth knowledge of how a concept will perform in the real world is another significant barrier. Access to hundreds of experienced engineers and project managers via the DNO workforce can be invaluable for emerging ideas.
Similarly, professional future funding and legal advice can be a huge support with safe knowledge that as DNOs cannot own IP, an SME’s great ideas are not only supporting real world network improvements but also protected for their own use and business growth. In fact, the EIC has its own legal department to further support inventors it matches with DNO projects.
Come out of your sheds
From direct programmes to those funded via the EIC, InnovateUK, and bodies such as the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) there are many routes to DNO support. Working in partnership with DNOs to find innovative ways to improve the electricity networks brings a wealth of financial and technological support – making such partnerships win-win for both SME and operator. DNOs’ message for those with ideas is clear: “Come out of your sheds and workshops and let’s grow ideas together.”
SME success stories
Many great businesses have hit significant development milestones working with Northern Powergrid’s innovation team.
GenGame is a spin out from two small engineering consultancies, with a vision of using gamification to support domestic demand side response (DSR). Following a three-year trial with Northern Powergrid as part of the “Activating Community Engagement” (ACE) project, GenGame have a flagship reference. The company now employs eight staff along with a number of part time freelancers as a fully established business, managing five projects with customers including a French energy efficiency company, a UK disaggregation start-up and an IoT hardware provider as well as being a partner on a UK/Korea/Thailand Smart Grid trial. In addition, the lessons from ACE are now being used in a follow-up project, “GenDrive” with Northern Powergrid teaming up with Ecotricity, Gengame, EnAppSys and Newcastle University to explore how gamification can motivate electric car drivers to use their vehicles to support the UK energy grid.
Pollywood is a great British innovation that has the chance to change the face of construction. The new material has a greater strength to weight ratio than steel and could be used as a replacement for existing solid wood electricity poles as they are currently coated with soon to be banned creosote, because it is a health hazard. Pollywood Poles will be made to order, dramatically reducing long lead times for existing poles and the space-consuming stockholdings of DNOs: increasing their ability to respond flexibly to serious weather events. The material, which can be used alternative to metal or plastics, has gone from inception to TRL 3 with Northern Powergrid’s support and is now the subject of an industry-wide funding call.
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.