‘The best way to predict the grid of the future is to shape it’ – SP Group CEO

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“It is hard to predict what the grid will look like in the future but we can shape it.” These are the words of Jimmy Khoo, the CEO of Singapore utility SP Group.

Khoo said this in a keynote session held during the Future of the Grid Summit. During the summit, hosted in partnership with Enlit Asia, energy stakeholders in Singapore and Asia discussed how business cases and current trends will shape the grid of tomorrow.

Khoo added: “To have a better view of what the future of the grid will look like, we need to solve the problem of prediction. I take comfort in Abraham Lincon’s saying: ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.

“In 1981, Bill Gates predicted that no one will need 637KB of memory for personal data, 640KB will be enough for anybody,” but is this what is happening today, Khoo asked.

Khoo said factors including climate change, urbanisation and technology advancements are disrupting the energy sector and utility business models, making it hard to have a clear picture of the grid of the future.

However, he believes digital tools will provide solutions to address the majority of the challenges that the sector faces today.

For instance, 5G will enhance the connectivity of grid devices and ensure secure and fast data telemetry, distributed energy resources management systems will help optimise the management of distributed resources whilst energy storage and flexibility will solve renewables curtailment and fluctuation.

However, there is a need for utilities to invest more in digital transformation, renewable energy deployment and to participate in the development of new tools, added Khoo.

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The CEO said there is a need to focus on opportunities and breakthroughs that are also providing challenges to utilities as the sector evolves. He said utilities need innovative mindsets and clear transformation roadmaps. The opportunities include:

  • Rapid technology changes

According to Khoo, change is happening so fast and the speed continues to increase. Utilities are confused with whether they should catalyse their adoption or wait and in deciding what solutions they should adopt. He said companies are also confused about whether they should buy or develop technologies.

Khoo gave an example within the energy storage market – Whilst Lithium-Ion battery solutions are being touted as a suitable solution to provide utility-scale long-duration storage services, solutions including graphene are already starting to penetrate the market.

However, a number of utilities globally have over the past years increased their participation in technology development through hubs at which they partner with technology vendors, academia and startups. For instance, Iberdrola recently launched its Global Smart Grids hub.

In addition to acting as technology research and development centres, these hubs also provide testbeds for utilities, where solutions and business cases are explored before being large-scale deployed by utilities themselves.

Khoo added that utilities however need to take advantage of the non-stop technology breakthroughs to create energy flexibility.

  • Pervasive consumption: Refers to the “blurring of the line between transmission and distribution system operators.”

Khoo said the majority of actions are now happening on the energy distribution level with consumers generating their own energy, managing it and even feeding into the grid. He said utilities are confused about whether they should encourage the new model or control it.

“Even if they decide to support the model, how do they manage the flow of electricity: do they have centralized or decentralized system flows.”

  • Demand lever

The emergence of demand response and distributed energy resources is confusing utilities whether they should focus on balancing supply or demand for grid resilience. Khoo said the future could be hybrid and characterized by an increase in regional super grids.

He said: “In the future, we will no longer have isolated national grids but rather regional and international grids.”

This is evidenced by an increase in grid interconnection in Europe under efforts by the European Commission to reduce reliance on the Russian grid of its member states in the Balkans. Recently, Egypt and Saudi Arabia issued a tender for the development of an HVDC interconnector between the two countries, the first to connect the Middle East and North Africa.

  • Think energy

Khoo said: “The future will no longer be of electricity grids, it will be of energy grids, for example, reusing energy, circular economy, harnessing of waste energy as a system and coupling of electricity with district heating and cooling systems and other systems such as electric vehicles.”

  • Knowledgeable workforce

The SP Groups’ CEO said utilities are today struggling with equipping their workforce with skills that will be required to ensure a secure and reliable operation of grid networks tomorrow. He added that focus should be put on empowering workers with smart grid technicalities and knowledge on how they can work alongside solutions such as robots, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

Khoo reiterated by saying there is “no modern answer regarding how the grid of the future will appear like.” However, he said emerging technologies including power electronics will dominate the energy market in the future and as such, there is an increasing need for energy companies to adopt, research and develop these technologies today.

A role to play

Nik Sofizan Nik Yusuf, head of grid solution expertise – TNB, who also spoke during the keynote session, added: “We are developing a technology roadmap for the design and development of the grid of the future. The project covers grid modernisation and decarbonisation and autonomous grids that are self-sustained.

“The challenge is that the power sector will become the core of the net-zero [efforts]. All DERs will be connected to the electricity sector, the challenge is to decarbonise whilst meeting an increase in energy demand from DERs and industrial activities.”

Dor Son Tan, head of distribution at energy networks Australia, reiterated that Australia has 13GW of distributed solar on consumer rooftops – ‘bigger than any coal plant in the world’ – and the challenge is that AEMO has no access to control these assets, just rely on industry standards.

The keynote session was entitled: Future grid: Beyond the smart grid and focused on government policies, current trends and forecasts, technology advancements and changing consumer expectations and how these are shaping Singapore’s grid.

Find out more about the session.