Distributed intelligence and secure grid connectivity – The next phase of grid development

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Developing distributed intelligence capabilities is the next phase for Asian utilities in their preparation for future business models reliant on renewables and digital technologies, according to Jeffrey Tufts, global energy segment leader at Cisco.

Tufts said this in a session The future of the grid: What next in grid development?, held during the first day of the Enlit Asia Digital Festival 2021. The session focused on the stage at which utilities are in developing smart grids and the technologies they should deploy to create reliable energy networks.

According to Cisco representative, distributed intelligence is when decisions are made at the grid edge, for instance at substations and reclosure stages. It means full automation.

However, he said it is still “early days in most of the world. Most utilities are still at the stage of digitising substations and integrating renewables with grids to get a consistent flow of data from distributed assets.”

He noted that utilities are still struggling with “including renewables deeply into the grid” and the “challenge of dealing with the distributed assets”.

For instance, Vietnamese utility EVN HCMC has slowed down its uptake of solar PV on the grid due to the fluctuating nature of the energy resource and the inability of the energy firm to address them. Luan Quoc Hung, deputy director at EVN HCMC, said his firm is now looking into expanding wind energy capacity on its grid to remain on track with energy transition goals whilst they seek technologies to address solar PV fluctuations.

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Tufts added that the limited success of utilities to manage DERs is a result of a “challenge in connecting end devices”. To achieve the energy transition and digital transformation goals, utilities are deploying thousands of end devices and distributed energy assets but in the end, are struggling to connect them for real-time management and control, he said.

According to Tufts, some of the world’s biggest utilities are looking into radio technologies, 4G, 5G, and optical communications technologies to optimise grid connectivity. These options enable utilities to securely connect grid devices, acquire data and send instructions. These developments would enable a grid to possess smart capabilities, he said: “Sourcing data from assets back to the control centre is vital in ensuring the reliability of the grid”

“Reliance on data is becoming more and more important. The more utilities digitise and become reliant on data produced by endpoints, the more they are able to enhance services,” said Tufts.

Encik Ismail Bin Lam Din, head of asset management at Malaysian utility TNB, backed Tufts’ notion: “the digital transformation is no longer an option but a must for every utility to embrace an increase in the penetration of renewable energy on grid networks.”

According to the asset manager, TNB faced the challenge of connecting its advanced metering infrastructure. The utility is deploying this to ensure consumers improve their energy efficiency to allow the use of renewables to provide baseload power.

As a result, TNB will be using fiber communications infrastructure to provide connectivity for the 2 million smart meters the utility is currently deploying.

Tufts reiterated that utilities need to set up plans on how to connect distributed assets. “It is important for a utility to have a 15 or 10-year transformation plan on how to scale up digital solutions properly across an entire service territory,” he said.

However, the plan should include enhancing the resilience of the grid against cyberattacks because “the more we digitise grid networks the more they are vulnerable to cyberattacks,” said Tufts.

Anne-Soizic Ranchere, principal at Enea Consulting, who was moderating the discussion, said the plans however also need to be customer-centric.

“Transformation is a must and should start now and need to be customer centric,“ said Ranchere in her closing statement.