Digitisation represents a real opportunity for utilities, says Olivier Grabette, vice CEO of French TSO, RTE, in an interview with Smart Energy International. This is especially true, he continues, for those wishing to be a first-class partner in the energy and climate transition.
“We have embarked on a very ambitious programme of digitisation combined with power technology in order to adapt to the fast development of renewable energy. Digitisation allows us to improve the performance of the existing grid and provides us with an innovative approach to asset management and monitoring through IoT in order to be able to operate the grid in a safer way, yet closer to the physical limits of that grid. Thus, it helps us improve the value of the existing grid and adapt to the integration of renewables and other aspects of digitisation. It also gives us new ways to address grid constraints – our RINGO Project, for instance, focuses on using storage facilities to improve the integration of renewables in areas where we have intermittency constraints.”
Stakeholders have the opportunity to develop flexibility which will be useful for the power system. Moreover, digitisation enables them to bring value to the market through flexibility and encourages stronger competition between different suppliers. This forces everyone to develop new competencies.
Says Grabette: “We have reinforced our team with developers and data scientists. We already have a lot of competencies in IT and IT systems, but last year, we increased the number of staff and developers in order to have a strategy which combines solutions provided by the market, and bespoke software which includes our know-how for integrating the system.
“We made the choice to develop a lot of our software through open-source channels and we are very active with the Linux Foundation in promoting open-source solutions in energy. The cooperative and open way in which we organise our work is new.”
Through cooperation with French startup CosmoTech, RTE has worked on an innovative software programme to simulate asset management strategies which have impacted on asset management organisation across the company. This has also impacted on the organisation of the company as a whole, with RTE working on a project to develop a grid asset supervisory room that will be open 24 hours a day. This initiative is predominantly based on the solutions that were developed with some of the start-ups they are working with.
The grid of the future will be a strong combination of traditional power technology along with innovative technologies such as power electronics combined with digital solutions. This will enable the grid as a very open platform, not only to exchange energy but also to exchange services and ensure that the electricity grid can be connected to other sectors. This is a very important topic currently under discussion, especially at a European level: How could coupling with the gas sector, for example, change the dynamic within the energy sector?
The grid has been developed as a field for competition between the different suppliers. However, to achieve the goals of the energy transition and the objective of reaching a carbon-neutral economy in 2050, “we believe the grid should also be a field for cooperation, not only competition,” Grabette explains.
“This is exactly what we are trying to develop using, for example, digital solutions. One of the projects is the concept of the digital substation – this substation which will not only be an electrical node, but also a digital node where we can collect a lot of information and make local decisions in order to be more resilient and manage flexibility in a very local and efficient way.”
The grid of the future is a combination of a grid that allows competition and cooperation between the different stakeholders at a European and local level.
This concept, furthermore, has some strong material requirements determining how the grid should be built – using less raw material and incorporating more recycling – to make it more eco-friendly. “We are now using eco-design in all our projects and we are putting more research and development into adapting an ecofriendly grid.
The Clean Energy Package requires reinforcement of European cooperation across the grid – something, Grabette says, they have been convinced is necessary for many years. There are multiple benefits of higher levels of cooperation: “But what we want is that this cooperation can be designed taking not only political issues into account but also the knowledge and competency that we have in grid operations. We have to be aware of the risk of a technocratic approach to cooperation, when what we need is a very cooperative approach based on good competency in operating the system.
“We are working on an experimental market design in order to be able to accept peer-to-peer exchanges on the grid and in a cooperative way. We are trying to pair the grid so that part of the exchanges will be based on a competitive market and another will be based on cooperation and exchange out of the market. And it is our duty and responsibility to find the technical solution to this.”
Electricity exchanges play a very important role in balancing the system in the way that there is also an economic incentive to develop a more efficient service or energy source. It’s a very useful tool for European scale grid balancing in the most efficient and economical way.
“From that perspective, with new technologies such as blockchain and what we call the local flexibility market, even the way that we used to deal with the exchange will be modified. So, in that field, it’s exactly the same – we need to have a pilot project and at the very end, we will have a combination of different types of exchanges. And what is most important is to be able to select the combination that is the most efficient – and when I say most efficient, I mean from both a cost and environmental impact perspective.”
The role of blockchain
“We are developing a pilot project using blockchain and we believe in the technology to promote a more decentralised way to operate and manage grid services. But it’s quite difficult to say what place it will take in the future,” explains Grabette. “My opinion is that at this stage, we have a lot of buzz about blockchain. But the share of new exchanges that are based on blockchain will stay quite low for the time being. However, when we have new uses of electricity – especially the anticipated millions of electrical vehicles – blockchain will allow us to have new cooperation scheme using a blockchain exchange of energy flexibility services.
“I don’t see it being massive in the near future – we need to have many more flexibility resources – and electric vehicles can be one of those resources connected to the grid to have higher use of the blockchain. I don’t believe it will change the sector in the next two years – it will take a little bit more time to have a massive impact.”
The exit of the United Kingdom
The question on everyone’s mind as the end of October looms is: How is Brexit going to affect RTE and the exchange of electricity with the United Kingdom?
The most direct impact will be on interconnectors that are pending, especially since there is a lack of clarity on the way in which Brexit will be managed. Apart from those that are already operational or in construction, these will likely remain in limbo until such time as there is more certainty.
“We have interconnectors with the UK, and we will continue to use them. It may be a little bit more complicated, but we were able to do it before market coupling, so we know how to operate the European grid with the UK. And if there is a Brexit, we will have to adapt the design, but it won’t stop the exchange of electricity between the UK and continental Europe.”
There was an exchange of goods, services and products before the Union, and as Grabette points out: “We could have a Brexit in which there is a specific agreement about the power sector that the UK can be integrated within the European market. We have a set-up like that with Norway and Switzerland. We have a range of possible solutions that will be determined by the type of Brexit, setting out what will or won’t be integrated into an agreement.
“We have a common goal when it comes to tackling the climate situation and it should build very strong cooperation between operators and industry, between Europe and member states,” Grabette concludes. “We will not be able to find solutions to all of the climate issues without close cooperation. As a TSO we want to be very active in promoting temperance in energy use. While the EU promotes energy efficiency, it is not enough – we should be more aware of the necessity of energy temperance and how we can change our behaviour to reduce energy consumption; have a stronger share of renewable energy in the mix, yet also consider the impact that even renewables will have on resources. This is an issue for Europe and for European Utility Week as it is part of the responsibility of all utilities.” SEI
ABOUT OLIVIER GRABETTE
Olivier Grabette is vice CEO, RTE France. A graduate from ENSAE, Grabette is executive vice-president of RTE and a member of the board in charge of Economy, R&D, expertise and IT since 2015.
He spent the beginning of his career in the engineering department of EDF in France and abroad. He joined RTE in 2002 to manage the West Maintenance Direction. After that, he worked for the top management of the National Centre for Grid Expertise of RTE.
In 2012, he created the R&D Department of RTE and has been responsible since 2014 for Economy and R&D. In April 2018, he was elected as president of the ThinkSmartGrids association.