A sensor and data-driven future for French TSO RTE


Smart Energy International spoke with Jean Pompee, Director of R&D – Smart Grids, for French TSO, RTE recently. With nearly 105,000km of lines, RTE’s grid is the biggest in Europe.

46.2% of extra-high voltage lines (400kV and 225kV) transmit electricity over long
distances and to 60 cross-border connections with neighbouring countries. Pompee shared progress on the modernisation efforts across the RTE transmission system.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 5-2018.  You have access to our digital magazine here. 

What changes are being implemented at RTE?

At RTE we are in the process of digitising our industrial assets.

While the majority of the French system is already fairly ‘smart’ – we already have dispatching, SCADA and monitoring – we need to go further and deal with incorporating renewable energy and new types of generation and consumption into the grid.

This will change the way we need to manage power flows and the network. To do so, we need to implement more and more monitoring and smarter grids into the system to handle operational and asset management issues.

Our long-term strategy is to improve the “smartness” of the system in relation to other stakeholders such as the DSOs, government and regulators, providers (from start-ups to historical solution providers) and users and large industrial concerns as well. We are in the process of digitalisation of all of our systems and processes, which requires being able to obtain and use huge amounts of data relative to our assets and the network. Then we have deployed IT systems and telecom systems along with different kinds of monitoring to enable our system to adapt in real time to events during the day.

On the asset management side, to be able to adapt the maintenance of our system and to implement preventive maintenance will be very important in the new context, to optimize the use of our assets and to take advantage of all the innovations brought by digitalization and data management. This will be a real innovation, a new way to manage our assets to take the best value from them and it’s a significant change in the way we operate the system. This is a process other system operators are also going through. The DSOs in France are undergoing a similar transformation, and we are all being supported by the regulators to be able to invest the money needed to upgrade the system.

Why is the digitisation of your system so important?

Up until now, for example, the flows on the network were always from centralized generation units to end-users. With the addition of decentralised and renewable energy generation, during the day we are experiencing that these flows are changing. They are no longer one directional and this impacts on how the system is used and managed.

Because the system was not conceived 40 or 50 years ago to be bi-directional, we need to change how we operate, especially since conditions on the network can vary from one hour to the next. So, we need to have a better understanding of what is happening in the system in real-time in particular.

We need to be able to collect more and more data from the system and implement monitoring through telecom and IT systems to understand what is happening in real time. If we are not able to manage the flow’s property, there is the possibility of congestion on the system, and this could ultimately lead to blackouts.

This is a massive operational issue, but we need as well to know how assets are used to adapt the maintenance of these assets, so we can optimise maintenance spend.

We are then in the process of digitalizing all of our substations. A big part of them are already partially digitalized, but we think that it is essential that all of our substations should be digitalized in the next ten years. These substations would then be both electrical and numerical network nodes, which would allow us, by using new generation control-command and various monitoring solutions, to collect and use huge amounts of data.

Today we can install cost-effective monitoring on the different assets to collect data and adapt the maintenance to the assets.

This depends on the weather, asset use, where it is placed on the system and geographic location – for instance, assets close to the sea are subject to different types of maintenance needs (due to corrosion) and exposure than, say, those in the city.

Deeper insight into the condition of our assets will enable us to ensure that they are always available as needed.As an example, the types of sensors that are deployed on the overhead lines tend to be thermal, mechanical or current sensors. Because these sensors are readily available in the market, which was not the case a couple of years ago – and at a reasonable price – we can undertake this type of monitoring in an affordable way along a number of assets along the entire French transmission system.

What other types of sensors could you utilise?

There are lots. A sensor that we are experimenting with on overhead lines is the DLR or dynamic line rating sensor. Because this sensor measures the status of the line, especially the real-time use of the line along with external conditions such as wind or temperature, it is possible for us to adapt the capacity of the line in real-time.

If, for instance, the sensor indicates there is a lot of wind it could decrease the temperature of the line; and by combining both wind and thermal data we are now able to make provision to increase the line capacity, enabling us to evacuate more generation.

Beside the sensors which can be installed on our assets, we are experiencing new ways of collecting data, by using drones with various sensors: camera, Lidar, etc. The main issue here, and we are investing a lot in our R&D on this topic, is to be able to interpret the data collected with these specific sensors to obtain a 3D model of our assets and their environment.

We need indeed to be able to examine data from different types of sensors to get as accurate a picture as possible as to what is happening on our assets. The data is at the core of the process.

We need to be able to collect a lot of data and analyse it at different timescales.

This is a significant change for us. We need to invest in new sensors across the network and to determine where and how and when the sensors are implemented and then to be able to use that collected data to exploit and optimise our assets.

In addition to our R&D teams which are currently working on these data issues, we have created a new division in RTE which is devoted to data analysis, enabling us to make the most use of the information available. We are implementing big data solutions and reinforcing our IT division to allow us to have the internal capability to manage our data ourselves in the long-run.

Is there a limit to the number of sensors you can attach to a specific device?

That’s a good question. Probably. It would depend on the space on or around the device, and it would depend on how the data can be collected from one device.

Because we currently use optical fibre to collect information, we have a big pipeline and that is not a limitation, but it would vary from device to device. On an overhead line, for mechanical reasons, we could probably install two or three sensors, but because of their weight and the space they take up on the line, we would be limited.

At this stage, the exact limit is unknown – depending on the size and the nature of the assets it could be as many as five or ten sensors, but ultimately, we would have to choose which are the most essential sensors to implement.

We don’t plan to implement the same types of sensors across all our lines. The idea is to be able to choose and then verify what is the most critical information needed, depending on the asset, its usage and location.

What about noise and interference between sensors?

Of course, interference between sensors, such as electromagnetic influence, is a specific issue. It may have an impact on the devices’ performances.

We are currently studying and testing the impact of this kind of interference. Hopefully by using fibre optics to transmit data, we are hoping this would reduce the amount of interference. But a lot of work is still to be achieved on this fundamental issue.

We are experimenting with this across parts of our network to determine how we can deal with several sensors in a given area.And cybersecurity?

We are also using our innovative opportunities to improve further our cybersecurity, which is a fundamental issue for us. With all these new devices and sensors on the system, the risk of cyber attacks is increasing. We need to be sure that we don’t take any chances by using these kinds of devices on the system without understanding where potential challenges could be. In addition to upgrading our IT systems and infrastructure, we are reinforcing our cybersecurity competencies and experts so that we can better manage our cyber landscape. This cybersecurity issue is obviously at the core of the design of our “new generation” substations too.

What is preventing you from moving ahead faster? Are there any regulatory, technical or human resource issues?

It is more technical and organisational issues that are holding us back, along with human resource issues.

The new digital systems and equipment being implemented are very different from what we’ve used before. Upskilling our staff to increase their competence in the system, and specifically on numerical issues, is a real challenge.

In some ways, this is even more difficult than any technical challenges we may face, as this impacts on the core of our business. It is crucial that we don’t neglect this.

Our staff are very eager to learn the new systems, but it is difficult to pick up these new skills while continuing to deliver excellent service.

We are fortunate that people are open to changing the way they work and adopting new skills. I was quite surprised in fact at the openness of people to adopt these new technologies and methods of working .

This is positive, as it will help us move forward on the digitalisation of our business. We employ 8,000 people, and therefore there is a lot of work to do to upskill people with these new technologies.

What is the most important lesson that you’ve learnt from both the technical and the human resources side?

What is important is to experiment and be open to experimentation.

Some days it will work; some days it won’t! But it is the only way to learn, and to learn fast.

RTE management is very supportive of this, and it encourages people to have ideas and to test their ideas. We need to change the way we work, and experimentation is essential to that process.

Not just at RTE, but alongside other stakeholders like start-ups, providers, authorities and other utilities.

We need to collaborate and experiment to test new ways of managing the system at various scales, from local to European scales. We need to be able to listen to everybody’s ideas and be open to failure.

Experimentation is the key word in the Smart Grids sector today.

On the human resource side, I would say that we have a lot of hidden resources in our organisations. There are a lot of people that are ready to do other things and to bring innovation to the way they work. We need to be able to let these people try and hear their ideas. This is the only way we will identify new ways of improving our business and the system in the end.

Collaboration is vital, and we cannot afford to stand alone.

Of course, it’s not a free for all, and we need to be careful that we don’t take any risk that will impact the availability or security of the system.

What is the most important message to your colleagues and peers in the sector?

We don’t have a choice; the world is changing around us, and we need to adapt to it.

We need to adapt our systems to this new world dynamic.

Everybody knows that. And we must take this trend as an opportunity for us to transform the energy sector and to contribute deeply to the energy transition.

We cannot do it alone. We need to work together to find solutions, and this means we must work together on a local level, national level, regional level and even an international level to understand what is coming and how we can efficiently deal with it. We need to share knowledge with regulators, legislators, large industrial concerns, vendors and start-ups. It is key to an efficient system in the future.

The creation of the French Smart Grids cluster, Think SmartGrids, in 2015, fits into this context: the main mission of this cluster, currently chaired by Olivier Grabette, member of the Board of RTE, is to provide fields of cooperation to all the French Smart Grids stakeholders, in order to accelerate the Smart Grids implementation in France and beyond.

More specifically in RTE, we are currently implementing a new business project for RTE, and the idea of this project is to be able to adapt more efficiently to the changing system, regulatory and legal issues. At the core of these changes, we need to be able to manage our data. Smarter grids are an essential part of this new project. This will lead to significant changes in our organisation and how we work in the future. The RTE executive understands that the RTE we know today will have to adapt to this new context to work within this new paradigm.

We are at a crossroads as we adapt to a new future and this is true for other utilities out there too.