The benefits of improved grid efficiency levels – both to the utility and to the consumer – are now well documented. With this in mind, regulations now emphasise the harder the grid, the longer it lasts, and the more efficient the grid, the larger the return for the utility. Keith Redfearn, general manager, software solutions for GE’s Digital Energy business talks with ES&D about implementing innovative smart grid solutions, the importance of resiliency and real-time load management.
What can be done to improve the resiliency of today’s electrical utility grids?
Upgrading and replacing ageing distribution infrastructure with intelligent, highly reliable solutions can go a long way in improving the resiliency of the world’s electrical grids. Often, these upgrades require the system to be shut down while the new equipment is installed. However, with solutions that can monitor networks in real-time and provide a comprehensive view of entire distribution grids, utilities can make informed decisions on when the best time is to perform updates. This real-time information enables utilities to identify potential fault locations and plan service instead of having to react once a problem does occur. In addition, many of these solutions can better connect utilities with their customers, providing insight into interruption times and durations.
Unplanned outages can require a combination of proactive and well-developed reactive response plans to reduce their impacts. These outages can create significant problems for a utility and its customers considering the time and duration of the disturbance is previously unknown. Utilising the power of the Industrial Internet and big data, GE’s intelligent solutions capture and analyse valuable grid data, equipping utilities with the information they need to get the power back on as fast as possible. This data also can be used to create a history of grid performance during disturbances, allowing utilities to look back at similar conditions to better predict how the grid will respond if faced with an outage-causing event.
How has the integration of small-scale power generation impacted the grid?
In the past, distribution networks have been fairly static; power flowed from the point of transmission to the customer. Moving from this unidirectional system to a dynamic multi-flow system with small-scale applications makes the utility grid more complex than ever. The recent influx of small-scale power sources such as rooftop solar presents more challenges to the grid and, in turn, makes it more vulnerable to outages. These alternative generation sources can have implications on grid safety, security and supply. If these small-scale applications are embraced fully, however, and are coupled with innovation, not only can these potential issues be mitigated, but they also can enable new opportunities to improve efficiency and reduce costs. This ‘smart’ thinking can transform challenges into opportunities.
How is the role of an engineer in the energy industry evolving?
Engineers always have needed to know the ins and outs of the transmission and distribution network to ensure they are designing the best possible solutions to optimise its performance. Now they need to be able to combine advanced IT, communications and innovation with the traditional understanding of how the grid operates. Engineers must become more aware of what intelligent capabilities are out there and available, how they can be utilised and what solutions do not exist yet, but could provide significant improvements to utility grid functionality and resiliency. In addition, engineers must be more commercially savvy to understand how driving key performance indicators can improve customer and shareholder value in a complex and evolving regulatory environment.
How do traditional software systems need to be adapted to ensure they can support the integration of renewable and distributed generation?
Existing transmission and distribution networks can become constrained during high-peak times and unforeseen spikes in demand. Integrating distributed generation sources into the grid provides a utility with alternative power sources that can be utilised to meet load demands. To support these new power generation resources, utilities must also implement intelligent software to be able to manage the entirety of their network and to allocate distributed power as it’s needed. The ability to visualise, plan and control both load and generation in real time enables utilities to maximise and optimise their resources to drive greener, more cost-effective and consumer-friendly service.