Growing Digitalisation: Power utilities turn to technology to improve operations

Power utilities turn to technology to improve operations

The power sector is undergoing transformation and in order to stay competitive, power utilities are moving towards digitisation, like every other industry. Increase in distributed generation, renewable-based capacity and storage systems, implementation of smart grid technologies, and evolution of prosumers are accelerating the need for such transformation. Through digitisation, utilities can gain insights, and build innovative business models to effectively implement new technologies. Data and analytics are at the forefront in enabling this digital transformation.

Top trends in digitisation

With the objective of curtailing the carbon footprint, the government has been increasingly focusing on renewables and distributed energy resources. Along with renewables, there has been emphasis on microgrids and energy storage systems as well. While adding renewable-based capacity, it is important to consider the implications on the grid. To this end, digitisation has a major role to play. The adoption of artificial intelligence is one of the key trends, which helps in managing the performance of a utility’s assets including transformers, substations, circuit breakers and meters. It also helps in the integration of data obtained from these with each other and enables enhanced system performance.

Other trends include the multidirectional flow of electricity and data in the grid, upskilling of the employees of utilities and adoption of cloud computing. Utilities are increasingly relocating their system applications to the cloud. These cloud services may be owned by the utility or some other vendor or may be shared with other utilities. Going forward, with digitisation gaining traction, it would become challenging to ensure cybersecurity. Various control systems such as the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system are now available to help reduce the risks from cyberattacks on key assets. They also enable the identification of critical vulnerabilities and other events that might threaten the security of the system.

Key components

Digital transformation is not just about seeing a product and buying it by looking at its features and functions. It is more of an outcome-driven decision. Utilities need to link their investment plans to outcomes in terms of how much can be saved and if these savings can be shared through various models such as public-private partnership. Outcomes in terms of cash flows, net present value and internal rate of return, etc. need to be validated.

Another key component that needs to be considered is the readiness of the industry. The utility needs to analyse if its current infrastructure is sufficient or if new infrastructure is required for the desired transformation. Further, the utility should identify the capex requirement for the same. Other key components of digital transformation include capability survey, architecture review, gap analysis, solution definition, solution alignment, linking of outcomes to process key performance indicators, change management and risk mitigation plans.

Solutions that enable digital transformation may consist of business data sources, asset performance management (APM) and analytics based on the requirements of the utilities. Business data sources include all assets of a utility such as substations, transformers, switchgear, meters and SAP solutions. Meanwhile, APM provides a unified, complete and accurate view of the asset, its state, status and health. Along with advanced proprietary analytics, it improves the reliability and availability of equipment, and reduces the cost of maintenance of assets over their lifetime by predicting potential equipment failure through accurate diagnosis of equipment issues. APM also increases the life of the assets and reduces the total cost of ownership of any asset.

Digital solutions also enable the aggregation of resources and the connectivity of systems across the grid. One such solution is the distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) that integrates all sources of green energy at the distribution grid level, allowing for real-time management of distributed renewables, storage, demand response, smart buildings and electric vehicles. DERMS offers a range of benefits to utilities including integration of small-scale renewables,  management of energy storage systems, load management, optimisation of electric vehicle charging, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and management of end-user consumption.

The power sector in India is already moving towards digitisation with a number of smart grid pilot projects initiated primarily to demonstrate new technological options in various areas of the grid. With benefits such as capacity optimisation, carbon dioxide emission reduction, reduction in fuel consumption, improvement in system efficiency and curtailment of costs, digitisation is undoubtedly here to stay.

Based on a presentation by Mukesh Wadhwa, Sales Leader, Smart Grid and Smart Cities, GE T&D India Limited