What Could Digitalization Achieve in the Power Sector? | Alliance to Save Energy
11/12/20 : Bryan Friehauf

What Could Digitalization Achieve in the Power Sector?

Sustainable power grid.

Active Efficiency seeks to optimizes energy use with the opportunities presented by digital technologies. We sat down with Bryan Friehauf of Hitachi ABB Power Grids, an Active Efficiency Collaborative Member, to discuss what Active Efficiency technologies and approaches could achieve in the power sector.

Most of us can directly feel the savings impacts of digitalization in the built environment – for example, smart home technology can help lower our monthly utility bills through adaptive and predictive systems. But fewer people have a clear picture of how digitalization technologies work in the power sector to achieve savings. Could you give some examples of these technologies and briefly explain how they will make the system more efficient and cost-effective?

The digitalization of the power sector allows for greater transparency into operations, which greatly increases efficiency and reliability while decreasing costs. Consumers will not only see the benefits of digitalization through lower monthly utility bills but also reduced outages and faster response times. For utilities, data is the backbone of their digitalization journey. This data can come from utilities’ assets, systems, and operations as well as external sources like weather forecasts. With the right software that crosses enterprise-wide data and system silos, utilities can have a single source of truth that enables collaboration and optimizes operations.  

Consider this scenario. A supervisor is alerted by email to the high-risk health of an asset. An operations worker prepares to inspect the asset and views a 3D model before going to the switchyard. During the inspection, the operator creates a work request from their mobile device. A maintenance worker then prepares to execute the order by viewing the electronic procedures and instructions. The asset’s health status then returns to green. This outcome can only happen when previously siloed information comes together. The data was brought to the right people at the right time, and therefore increased efficiency.   

What are the barriers to more widespread deployment?

Initial barriers include regulatory approvals and even costs, but one of the biggest challenges is a demonstrable return on investment. There are few companies that have both the domain and software expertise to intelligently guide a utility’s digitalization journey. The complexity of the grid is fast increasing and utilities need partners that understand all facets of their business, otherwise, this return on investment won’t be reached. Successful widespread deployment also means a commitment from the workforce. Communicating the benefits of digitalization and how it can enable them to work better, smarter, and faster can inspire buy-in.

How can greater adoption of simulation technologies give insight into the impacts of various changes to the energy system, and how it helps make the case for implementing those changes?

Utilities operate a complex system of assets and need to simulate the entire puzzle to benefit their operations, not just one piece. Increasing adoption of simulations across the board gives utilities view and control, even down to an extremely granular level. But the foundational component of this is the value of the simulation tool. Utilities operate in conditions that are less than perfect, so it’s critical that they have a tool that understands various dynamics and can still provide a meaningful and actionable outcome.

Additionally, consider how collaboration can benefit economies at scale. Automation and digitalization makes sense for a stand-alone utility, but it makes even more sense for utilities to coordinate and share information more seamlessly at their borders. This can give way to a more efficient energy system. 

What would you like federal policymakers to know about the importance of deploying digitalization technologies in the power sector?

Digital transformation is not only inevitable, but essential for the energy sector’s success. Extreme weather, efforts to decarbonize and other factors are placing new pressures on the grid. Digital technologies are key for giving utilities insight into their operations to increase reliability and the safety of their workforce. A shared understanding of the power of digitalization and a coordinated effort between policymakers and industry is critical for reaching the grid’s future potential.

Let’s say that we have a completely “dynamic grid” in 2030. What does that term mean to you, and what would that look like for utilities and customers?

A dynamic grid means there will be a constant flow of information between the utility and the customer. On one end, consumers can produce and use their own energy while also having the option to sell it back. Utilities can provide customer-specific options based on market prices and incentivize them based on these price signals, creating greater flexibility. As we move toward a more dynamic grid, digitalization will be increasingly important for the modern utility.

What are the top two or three changes that must happen in our energy system to have any chance at creating a “dynamic grid” by 2030?

Hardware upgrades are the first step. Begin with advanced metering infrastructure adoption then work up to distribution grid management. This provides utilities the data they need to begin building smarter operations. But, the technology solution that brings this information together into a comprehensive picture is just as important. A dynamic grid will not be successful without data supporting it.

What are broad lessons you’ve learned from past experience when it comes to introducing a new digital technology to an energy system?

There is often the expectation that valuable information is immediately available once all data is collected, stored, and organized in a large repository. In reality, utilities can be caught trying to find a needle in a haystack when trying to find actionable insights, and hindsight of how the process could have been more informed comes to light. If organizations included employees with domain expertise earlier in the process to start distilling the data down as far upstream as possible, they can realize value faster. But this can’t just be an IT/OT department effort: all branches of an organization must be included to parse out actionable information from raw data.