How distribution utilities can make the most of the changing energy landscape

Our devices are getting smarter. Our vehicles are getting smarter. The world around us is getting smarter with more embedded computing and communicating capabilities. So, it’s only natural that the energy that powers our world should follow suit.

From the control room of an electric distribution utility to the electrical outlets in the homes of consumers, technology is making our use of energy smarter and more efficient. The smart energy consumer today is empowered by data. Through detailed information and controls provided by the utility, energy consumers now understand the real reasons why the energy bill is going up, and sometimes can compare with owners of similar houses. They also know how to better manage usage and control their bills.How distribution utilities can make the most of digitization in the changing energy landscape

Many customers have begun taking more direct control beyond the cost and reliability to include the actual energy supply itself. One way is through the use of grid-connected, distributed energy resources like rooftop solar.  But technologies like these present some challenges for distribution utilities, such as increased grid complexity, and demands that they keep pace by maximizing their own grid efficiency and intelligence.

So, with ever-smarter grids driving energy for the foreseeable future, how can distribution utilities make the most of the changing landscape?

Internet of Things

IoT underpins the growth of connected devices. Distribution utilities now find an increasing number of vendor offers that include new, connected technologies. Automated grid devices and new sensors change the face of the future grid and transform grid operators’ jobs. It offers distribution utilities greater insight into their systems and new levels of field operations efficiency, but also comes with a lot more data to contend with.

Distribution utilities realize that it’s one thing to collect data and quite another to make it useful through management and analysis. They must invest in and develop their abilities to make this data work for them. By expanding capabilities in scheduling, planning, simulation, asset management and operations, advanced analytics deliver greater insights and better decision making.

IT/OT convergence

Utilities are experiencing an increase in both IT systems and OT systems. The integration of information and operational technologies is critical for the evolution toward digitally enabled networks.

Data is the future of distribution utility business. It’s the core component of digitized mechanisms for asset management and grid operations, as well as future grid orchestration.

Fine granularity and timely data integration between substations, distribution feeders, smart meters, and key applications like SCADA, DMS, OMS, GIS, and Asset Management, complemented by external sources, greatly improves operational efficiency, service levels, decision making processes.

And, more than ever, relying on international standards in terms of data models, data integration, and data management is essential to enable a sustainable evolution of not only IT/OT systems but also their interoperability with external players within an increasingly open power ecosystem. It applies to grid-edge technologies enabling distribution-level awareness, control and optimization of DER (like DERMS, DG, microgrid, and VPP).

Cybersecurity

While interoperability standards continue to develop about data that is accurate and analytically useful, cybersecurity is still a significant concern. When viewed through the lens of risk mitigation, utilities can devise a targeted approach that considers their network in the most practical way, as well as its people, processes, and organization.How distribution utilities can make the most of digitization in the changing energy landscape

Companies should look to build security into the design of their IT and OT systems via retrofit, upgrades, or bolt-on approaches. Integrated cyber security strategies should also define the organization’s policies for patch management, data ownership, data privacy, and identity management compliance. As utilities create more data, end-to-end security from the sensor to application level is more critical than ever.

It is estimated that 3 million energy users in Europe are already generating at least some of their own power. These prosumers are taking energy consumption and management into their own hands. For distribution utilities, this presents a real challenge. To face this transition, they need a digital revolution of their own — one that brings greater grid efficiency and grid intelligence to keep pace with the changing energy environment. At the core of a successful distribution utility strategy is digitization. 

Jean-Yves Bodin is Marketing Director Energy Digital Solutions, Energy Business at Schneider Electric

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