3 Ways Power Grids Can Leverage Digitization to Overcome Growing Industry Challenges

Douglas Nunez, Global Power Industry Expert, AVEVA

Today the transmission and distribution sector is facing a myriad of challenges. Stricter environmental and safety regulations, pressure to shift to green energy sources, and a retiring workforce all present significant headwinds for power grid operators.

Originally designed for a one- way flow of electricity, the power grids in developed nations are becoming increasingly complex. As the demand for renewable energy has increased, so, too, has the number of distributed energy resources (DERs). This complexity presents a unique challenge to utilities, as they work to balance power supply and demand amid fluctuating environmental conditions.

According to McKinsey & Company’s Global Energy Perspective 2022 report, investments in energy supply and production are expected to double by 2035, and nearly all growth is expected to come from new decarbonization technologies.

What’s more, given the retiring workforce, there may be a shortage of skilled labor, which will force companies to find new ways to transfer institutional knowledge and empower and train new workers.

To overcome these challenges, improve profitability and decarbonize along the way, grid operators will need digital tools that improve and increase operational efficiency.

Increasing operational resilience and agility

With the right technologies, grid operators can decrease unplanned outages, gain real-time visibility into grid capacity, and improve customer satisfaction. With more accurate operational data and a model-driven execution process, transmission and distribution companies can improve efficiency and reliability, and be better positioned to participate fully in the energy transition.

Governmental regulation and public opinion are both compelling utilities to be more transparent about how they operate and what their power sources are. Utilities must also meet environmental, social, and governance (ESG) targets and reduce their contaminant emissions. To achieve these goals, utilities will need to update old processes and upgrade assets. By understanding the capabilities of the grid, operators can optimize it, make it more agile, and improve its efficiency.

For example, the Australia-based utility, Energy Queensland, faced new challenges when new, large solar farms and other renewable energy sources started feeding into its grid. The influx of new energy sources forced Energy Queensland to find new ways to manage the capacity of its grid, which was originally designed with a one-way flow of electricity in mind.

To keep power lines from overheating, Energy Queensland uses ratings for different sections of the grid as an upper limit on how much power each section can carry. That approach works, but in an ever-changing environment, a static rating means that there is unused potential capacity for power flow. As the network is taxed more heavily by two-way power flow, it becomes more critical to tap into that unused capacity.

Empowering workers

Empowering its workforce is one of the best ways for the power utility sector to decarbonize and make its operations more sustainable. Power grids often span large territories and include many remote locations.

By digitally connecting workers across these long distances with one another and with the data they need, utilities can incentivize innovation, lower the cost of curiosity and take full advantage of the workforces they already have in place, while saving on transportation costs. An empowered, energized workforce can make impressive efficiency gains while keeping operations safe.

DTE Energy is the 12th-largest utility in the United States, serving over 2.2 million customers in the state of Michigan. It faced challenges in promptly identifying and triaging issues with its grid. But now it uses AVEVA PI System to visualize sensor data in real-time. When sensors show that something is wrong, DTE sends alert notifications to its operators, crew, and consumers. This system allows DTE workers to respond quickly and efficiently to common issues like trees falling on power lines or routine equipment failures. As a result, the utility has shortened outage times by approximately 500,000 minutes per year and increased customer satisfaction, all while reducing the time it spends on proactive patrols.

Decarbonizing the grid

In order to overhaul operations so they are more sustainable and use more renewable energy sources, grid operators often need to make costly upgrades to their infrastructure and capacity. To justify these added expenditures, decision-makers must have a way to share utilities’ demonstrable progress with customers, regulators, and stakeholders alike. They, in turn, can take full advantage of the incentives and credits associated with consuming renewably sourced power. When utilities can track and securely share energy-sourcing data, their customers can benefit from the information, which drives new revenue.

Dominion Energy (Dominion) has used digital tools to do just that. Using cloud-based data management solutions, the team gathers and shares energy source and performance data with customers from across its network. By sharing its data, Dominion proves it is using energy from low-carbon sources and allows its customers to track Dominion’s sustainability commitments.

As a result, Dominion’s customers can provide evidence of their own net-zero commitments to investors, ESG auditors, and other stakeholders. Dominion’s embrace of cloud-based digital solutions has forged a profitable new business model for the company, which other grid operators will likely replicate in the future as more transmission and distribution companies seek to decarbonize.

Prospering amid uncertain times

To prosper amid the tumult of challenges in the coming years, utilities must build their industrial information infrastructure, upgrade their operations applications, and securely share and display information to foster collaboration both within their teams and with their partners.

By undertaking these initiatives, utilities can achieve greater measures of operational agility and resilience, empower their workforce to ensure profitable and sustainable operations and accelerate the transition to green energy.

By Douglas Nunez, Global Power Industry Expert, AVEVA