Iberdrola sets its sights on being a smart grid forerunner

Metering & Smart Energy International spoke with Miguel Sanchez Fornie, global director of smart grid and Alberto Sendin Escalona, head of telecommunications, from Spanish utility, Iberdrola, about the company’s positioning in terms of the implementation of smart metering and smart grid within its European operations.

Iberdrola’s position in smart grids goes back to 2007, “because of the legal requirements of the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism and regulations within the European Union, we took this as an opportunity to digitise and improve our network,” Sanchez Fornie says. “We knew very well that we would have to deploy a robust telecommunication network with millions of nodes that could provide more than just information to customers around their consumption. The information to consumers is fantastic, but we felt this was the right opportunity to go ahead with smart grid deployment through the expansion of automation on the network, supervision in real-time, going across both the medium and low voltage networks. However, our main purpose is to digitise our network.”

The company started by modernising its metering installations and by the end of August 2016, eight million meters had been upgraded to smart meters. The rollout will be completed by 2018, representing some €2,000 million in investment by the company over that period.

The flagship of the smart grid deployment is the STAR project (remote grid management and automation system or Sistema de Telegestión yAutomatización de la Red), the name of the project under which the smart grid is being taken to the field across all the distribution territory in Spain.

The STAR project provides Iberdrola with the means to pursue a number of key objectives. Firstly, that of fulfilling legislative requirements, which calls for remote management development; secondly, to make use of this deployment to evolve technologically while improving the company’s distribution grid; and thirdly, to provide Iberdrola the capability of effectively controlling the feed of renewable energy into the grid.

The number of installed smart meters has allowed Iberdrola to adapt its distribution network by incorporating real-time monitoring and automation – in addition to the implementation of electric vehicles and improved energy efficiency; realtime meter reading, registration and termination of contracts; and modification of contracted power.

Sendin explains that “the telecommunications network is the resource enabling the integration of different telecommunication technologies, in the different grid segments. At the medium voltage level, the telecommunication technology is chosen in the most efficient way according to the specific topology and geography of the area. We have a combination of technologies depending on location, comprising private (broadband PLC-BPL, with more of 17,000 secondary substations covered) and commercial telecommunications; but from the secondary substation to the meter in the low voltage grid, we rely on PLC communications, using the PRIME standard.”

Not just about meters

“The deployment of the meters is only a part of the network utilisation,” Sanchez Fornie continues. “Operational benefits are clear – the quality of service we are able to give our customers is the most important benefit we can deliver from the smart grid rollout. Naturally, there are operational benefits for the utility as well and the increased automation across the network allows us to have real-time supervision of the network. “We are able to identify and isolate faults clearly, and we can control the network and although our initial priority was our medium voltage network, we are seriously considering more automation across our low voltage network.

You must bear in mind that the conventional way of operating requires sending teams out into the field to address any potential problems. The changes to our network will allow us to identify problems before we send teams out.”

He continues: “We are specifically talking about the utilisation of the secondary substations in our network across medium to low voltage. 46,000 substations have been digitised thus far out of close to 100,000 substations in our network.”

These substations have been digitised, enabling remote management, monitoring and automatic isolation and reestablishment capabilities. The important impacts have been seen with an improvement in revenue protection “using data from the meter side as we are now able to have clear insight into energy supplied vs energy consumed. This gives us a clear idea of where losses – technical or non-technical – may be occurring.”

The biggest gains could be made on the low voltage network due to the number of end points, the number of cables, geographic spread and opportunities to add sensors to the infrastructure.

However, given the scale of the project, Iberdrola will need to prioritise where to focus their attention first. Says Sendin, “We are wanting to extend these capabilities to the low voltage network by adding intelligence to this part of the network.”

“We want to be sure of the capabilities of our network, the topology of the network, how we can optimise its use and operate it more efficiently. Our teams who are responsible for this management will be responsible for determining where the automation and sensors need to be added first. This will allow us to extend supervision and remote control in real time.”

By allocating and resolving technical and non-technical losses, Iberdrola is better able to comply with regulatory requirements, but perhaps more importantly, is able to get benefits for the customers in the electricity system too.

Sanchez Fornie expands on this, saying: “The information we get from the sensors and meters allows us to identify breaks in the line, or potential faults and helps us to identify potentially dangerous situations and mitigate these.”

“The digitisation of the network is a gold mine that we can exploit to the benefit of both the utility and our customers. We don’t have all the capabilities available at the moment, but we are learning as we implement and gaining a lot of good benefits both operationally and for our customers.”

Implications of the smart grid on skills development

It’s important to have a good balance between traditional and new skills in any organisation, Sanchez Fornie believes.

“This is taking into account the fact that the network needs people to deploy and maintain physical infrastructure; and given the utilisation of the network, we now have the complications of sensors and telemetry, but also a clear revolution of the type of human resources we need in order to deal with the new type of network.

“Our staff are well trained and do their jobs very well but now they are being asked to operate intelligent equipment outside of the main scope of our normal work and this is one of the biggest implications of the revolution that our industry is going through.”

The new generation of engineer will need to be a smart grid engineer, and Iberdrola is proactively working with universities and schools in Spain to ensure that the needs of the future utility are going to be met. In addition to this work, more than 3,000 staff have been trained specifically for the new digitally enhanced grid and Sanchez Fornie is pleased to note, “have been very open to learning about the new technologies.”

“However, in order for us to keep pace with the technology, we are working on standardising as much of the technology across substations as possible to ensure we don’t overcomplicate the network and make it impossible to keep up with the pace of technology.”

Economic benefits

The installation of smart grids also denotes a remarkable new opportunity to generate jobs for the numerous companies providing services to the power sector, and is a significant boon for the economic development of Spain. Iberdrola has awarded smart-grid related contracts to various manufacturers and suppliers over recent years for €450 million. MI