Keeping the lights on at the end of the tunnel


Across Europe, new COVID-19 cases are declining, and economies are taking tentative steps to ease restrictions and return to something like normality. Assuming we don’t see a second peak, this is cause for celebration: vulnerable people can worry a little less, families can see one another again, and the hardest-hit sectors of our economies and societies can begin to rebuild.

With that will come changes to electricity supply and demand patterns across society. Let’s be clear: this is not a return to ‘before’ the crisis but is a transitionary stage as we gradually recover. It will bring its own set of challenges – not least for the distribution system operators (DSOs) and distribution network operators (DNOs) operating low- and medium-voltage grids.

These utilities are faced with a potentially short decision-making window and a moving target of societal recovery rates – difficult things to manage if you’re accustomed to long lead times and a meticulous decision-making process. Speed and agility will be crucial.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

Is this the time right to be thinking about this, or is it premature? As recently as the end of May and the beginning of June, we saw prolonged negative power prices in markets such as the UKGermany, Belgium and France thanks to continued low demand. Clearly, demand on European grids is not back to normal. However, there are reasons to think that change is on the horizon, both for overall demand levels and how it’s distributed.

Across Europe, the common theme has been gradual relaxing of lockdowns since early May, and there are more planned for early June. Here in Switzerland, cinemas and theatres reopened from 6 June, while Spain allowed bars and restaurants to reopen (at 50% capacity) on 10 June. Each country will proceed at its own pace, but the patterns are similar.

As economic activity returns and people go back to work, we can expect a degree of power demand to return too – and also for the distribution of demand to begin shifting back from residential areas to commercial and city centres. In the not so distant future, we may expect industrial demand to pick up too (Russia is already encouraging this) and for electrified public transport services to increase somewhat.

The grid managers’ challenge

To put it bluntly, the challenge for DSOs and DNOs will be speed and agility. The situation may change from week to week, depending on the virus’ spread. Grid managers are used to decisions such as whether to reinforce a cable or replace a transformer. They are weighed carefully and intended for the long-term. Now, the decision-making process must be streamlined considerably.

However, no matter how agile decision-makers can be, they are limited by the information at their disposal. The vast majority of today’s grids are ‘dark’, in that there is no remote, real-time visibility into their performance or condition. In order to gather data to inform decisions, engineers must be dispatched to the field to inspect assets manually.

Not only is this slow, but its also potentially difficult at a time of COVID-19. Utilities are contending with reduced headcounts as employees are affected by the virus or need to self-isolate and face logistical challenges of social distancing for jobs that require more than one person. Staffing issues may be easing, but they have not disappeared, and caution is still paramount.

Therefore grid managers’ ability to collect data to inform their decisions is both slow and reduced – hardly conducive to agile, responsive decision-making. The exceptions are where digitised grid assets enable real-time and remote insight into grid behaviour – but the majority of low- and medium-voltage grids currently don’t have such capabilities.

A ticking clock?

Compounding the difficulty for grid managers is the potentially short window of time they have to work with. There is a credible chance of a second peak of the virus hitting in the winter, or of other similarly disruptive events.

This window leaves a brief and intense summer-autumn period to recover from the original pandemic. Adjusting to new paradigms as societies open up again, and prepare for further potential turmoil later in the year – all while portions of their workforce may still be returning and readjusting to an in-person work environment.

Grid managers must consider what they can do quickly to prepare for further disruption. The problem is that strengthening the grid with physical assets – new transformers, more copper in the ground etc. is expensive and time-consuming. And as we teeter on the edge of a potential pandemic-linked recession, both time and money may be in short supply.

However, digital investments can be transformative in a far shorter space of time. By implementing technology that gives far-reaching and real-time insights, throughout the grid, utilities gain a measure of understanding and insight into asset behaviour, health and performance.

That is not to say that physical upgrades won’t be necessary: they might be, but prioritisation will be quicker and easier based on real data without the need for manual inspection throughout the network.

This also better protects staff at a time where distancing is still in place, and unnecessary travel is discouraged and reduces the risk of key staff taking vital knowledge with them if they need to spend some time away from work. At the peak of the crisis, we saw grid managers living in their control rooms to keep the grid functioning and isolating from their families – this sacrifice wouldn’t be necessary in a digitised world.

There certainly is light at the end of the tunnel. But for those keeping the lights on, there is still much uncertainty and much work to do. An insight-driven approach will help utilities rise to the challenge – and help them adjust to the longer-term changes the pandemic will undoubtedly create. This will be the topic of our next article.

By Anja Langer Jacquin, CCO, Depsys – part two of a three-part series.

Part one is available here.