Preparing utilities for the energy sector of tomorrow

By Antonio Martinez Reina, Global Utility and Renewable Leader for ABB Electrification
The energy grid of tomorrow is powered by renewable energy
Antonio Martinez Reina, Global Utility and Renewable Leader for ABB Electrification, looks to what the utility of the future may look like in the future

As a highly regulated public service organisation, the traditional utility model has always been a conservative one. This is seen as innovation in the sector has been slow to emerge, resulting in an aged grid infrastructure designed to deal with a steady supply of centrally generated energy - in other words, the energy of yesterday. 

The evolving energy landscape needed for tomorrow alters the status quo as utilities, businesses, consumers and prosumers alike transition to decentralised self-generation for a more sustainable and secure future. The result is an industry-defining shift as operators seek to adapt the entire utility ecosystem to better serve new needs. Here, Antonio Martinez Reina, Global Utility and Renewable Leader for ABB Electrification, looks at what the utility of the future may look like and the emerging technologies which should be explored today to navigate the transition ahead.

Establishing a decisive shift from fossil fuels to clean energy has long been high on the agenda for progressive utilities aligned to their net zero strategies.

The power generation sector, after all, not only accounts for one-third of total global carbon emissions but a reliable supply of renewable energy is a critical factor across many of the pathways to a decarbonised economy, including sustainable transport. 

What is a more recent development is the added impetus that the unfolding energy crisis has brought to the equation.  For years, traditional fossil-based systems of energy production and consumption – including oil and gas – have become increasingly expensive. Now though, as the energy crises continue to expose nations to the challenges of energy security and fossil fuel dependence, securing greener power is no longer only about climate change but also a matter of keeping the lights on.

The result is a period of fundamental change for the global utilities sector as it increases renewable energy capacity – predominantly solar and wind generation - at pace.

But while this certainly presents positive progress for the green agenda, it brings a wholly different problem as utilities face managing this transition while using an aged grid infrastructure that is already being pushed to do more than it was originally designed to do. 

This, in turn, prompts the question – how can utilities manage the evolving current need using the existing grid while preparing for the future?

The energy of yesterday

To answer this question, we must first explore the dynamics of existing grid infrastructure. 

To say that the world has an aging electrical grid is an understatement. Much of the infrastructure that carries electricity supply into our homes, offices and factories was built in the second half of the 20th century with approximately a 50-year-life expectancy and is in vast need of an upgrade.

It was also only ever designed to deal with steady, reliable supply of fossil fuel-powered generation, under the basic assumption of ensuring the amount fed into the grid is always equal to the amount consumed. This was at a time when fossil-based fuel was acceptable, plentiful and cheap and it was also manageable as you could switch generating capacity on and off relatively quickly. Weather-dependent wind and solar energy sources are incredibly difficult to predict and add all sorts of complexities that result in a remarkably complicated balancing act between supply and demand

Add to the mix a changing grid profile as electricity needs evolve with rapid electrification driven by electric mobility and emerging industries, along with the rapid rate of self-generation, and the stark reality is that the current grid simply isn’t fit for purpose. 

The result is an age-defining transition for the global utilities sector as it shifts from entrenched business models and pivots to a smart new energy system designed to power our low carbon future more effectively. But what exactly will the future utility model look like?

The evolution of energy distribution

As the world moves towards more renewable energy generation and climatic extremes further impact grid infrastructure, the demand for dynamic electrical energy storage will grow.

A critical component of this marked shift is battery energy storage. Although not new, battery energy storage systems (BESS) offer a highly effective way for utilities to store excess energy and redeploy it when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing to balance the grid and ensure constant reliability. In this way, it offers a more economical route to renewable integration, allowing existing power infrastructure to be used more effectively in the interim of grid upgrades.

Another proven route to better resilience is the microgrid. At the most basic level, a modern microgrid will usually involve renewable energy generation options such as solar panels and wind turbines, and some form of energy storage device, invariably a battery, to create a decentralised, self-sufficient energy hub. 

One of the major benefits of this approach is that a microgrid can act as part of the wider grid while also being able to disconnect from it and operate independently, for example, in the event of a blackout. In this way it can help utilities to provide power during peak usage while working to modernise the existing grid infrastructure.

Further in the Future

But this is just the beginning. Core to the success of the emerging new power delivery model will be a leaning to greater digitalisation to operate, monitor and deliver more sustainable electricity. 

This smart network will utilise the same basic infrastructure we know today, but will also draw on innovative monitoring, control and communications technology that communicate and work together to deliver electricity more reliably and efficiently. 

Applications include distribution automation, substation automation, automated metering infrastructure, distribution automation, outage management, automatic load shedding, and management of alternative energy resources. Amid the increased complexity and horizontal integration of the grid this network will extend to the grid edge – for example, including additional power sources that were once points of consumption like houses and business via interconnectors feeding back into the wider grid. 

Armed with centralised access to this intelligence in real-time, it will become easier to manage spikes in demand and bring down peak loads, providing immediate benefits in terms of cost and reliability. As well as increasing renewable integration, the ability to gain better information on end user’s consumption as well as supply, also means power flows can be optimised in real-time. It also enables lower operational costs through the ability to detect, isolate and address issues before they escalate, reduce repair time and improve asset optimization. Moreover, the ability for utility workers to access information remotely and in real-time without a physical presence offers further efficiency gains.

Importantly too, the smart network approach will enable consumers to better manage their own energy consumption costs through improved access to their own data. The same applies too of the emerging age of prosumers and businesses choosing self-generation, making it easier to sell surplus self-generation back to the grid.

In this way, the future electrical grid will become much more than a generation and transmission infrastructure where the utility ‘sells’ and end-users ‘buy’. It will become an ecosystem of diverse types of asset owners, service providers, manufacturers and government official where all links play a role in supporting reliable, secure, and clean sources of energy.

Powering tomorrow

The bottom line is that as the way we generate, distribute and use energy changes, the very nature of our power grids will have to evolve. They will become more distributed, more intelligent and more resilient. They will also pivot to a much more collaborative, coordinated approach that involves both the public and private sectors coming together to advance the capability of today’s system. Yes, this exciting transformation may bring both challenges and opportunity but if the result is a world powered by reliable, secured and clean energy it is certainly one worth reimagining.

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