Will data shortages cause the blackouts of the future?

6 March 2018 (Last Updated December 23rd, 2019 12:42)

Recently, the FT reported  on a crisis brewing at National Grid and threatening to hit the reliability Great Britain’s electricity system. Interestingly, this crisis is not for the lack of power, it is a result of disruption in the flow of data.

Will data shortages cause the blackouts of the future?
A crisis brewing at National Grid and threatening to hit the reliability Great Britain’s electricity system. Credit: Courtesy of David Shankbone

Recently, the FT reported  on a crisis brewing at National Grid and threatening to hit the reliability Great Britain’s electricity system. Interestingly, this crisis is not for the lack of power, it is a result of disruption in the flow of data.

In the past, the electricity system was very centralised, with the vast majority of power produced by big generation plants (mostly coal and nuclear). This power was then channelled via the high-voltage transmission network, which is owned and operated by National Grid, which is also responsible for the proper functioning of the entire electricity system. In order to fulfil its role as a system operator, National Grid has to balance supply with generation across the UK, and make sure there is enough power to cover the highest demand peaks. It therefore relies on accurate data and modelling, to forecast both generation and demand.

Why data? Why now?

The problem stems from a significant change in how the grid works. The significant growth in low carbon technologies like wind, solar and combined heat and power (CHP) is important for reducing carbon emissions from the electricity system, and ensuring the long-term viability of the energy system. Many low-carbon generation resources are much smaller in scale, and are connected to the distribution networks—those that link the transmission network to most homes and businesses at a much lower and safer voltage. These networks are not operated by National Grid, and do not have as much visibility and monitoring as the transmission network. As a result, National Grid is less able to access the data on generation and peak demand within the distribution network.

The data exists, and is held by a number of stakeholders, but one of the most important ones is ElectraLink, which is a company specialising in data transfer, and data analysis for the UK utilities industry. The company sells summaries of this data, in the form of its Renewable Energy Insight service, which was launched towards the end of 2016. At the time, it claimed to be removing the “renewables blind spot”. It seems that the data provided by this service is not available fast enough or at a sufficient level of granularity. National grid has reportedly entered protracted negotiations with ElectraLink to get the raw data, but it is not clear why this has not succeeded.

Data is becoming as important as power for running the electricity grid

Data sharing will be vital for the future operation of the utilities across the electricity, gas and water. Many in the utilities industry agree, and are exploring ways to support wider and smoother data sharing. This includes distribution network companies, like Northern Powergrid, that today announced plans to use smart meter data to reduce energy losses. The UK’s Energy Networks Association, which is the industry body representing all power and gas network companies in the UK are also promoting data sharing in the energy sector heavily, through its Open Networks scheme.  On the technology side, GridKey—an analytics platform for substation data that is owned by Lucy Electric — recently announced that it collected 85 billion data points in its collaboration with UK DNOs. Another project, run by EA Technology and Western Power Distribution, is trying to build an open platform, dubbed Open LV, to share distribution network data across all UK utilities.

As illustrated by National Grid, this data sharing is increasingly important for keeping the lights on. The future reliability of the energy system will depend on having the right protocols, technology infrastructure, and mindset that makes this sharing possible. However, there is also a tension between privacy and security requirements and data sharing. For examples, one of the key reasons that ElectraLink used to justify not sharing the data with National Grid is compliance with UK privacy regulations (the GDPR) that has been recently introduced. Issues like this will increasingly hinder open data sharing and need be resolved for this vision of a data-driven grid to become a reality.