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Power grids: the value of regular health checks

By Heidi Vella 14 Jan 2021 (Last Updated January 25th, 2021 13:31)

Since offering free quarterly power grid health checks to its customers, Swiss grid management company Depsys says that 50% have discovered previously unknown critical points in their networks. We spoke to the firm to find out what’s emerging from the data and how analytics can help operators become more active players in the energy transition.

Power grids: the value of regular health checks
“There’s now a need for intelligence with the objective of continuing the provision of the electricity maintaining quality and performance,” said Anja

New climate mitigation policies are expected to accelerate the energy transition over the next decade, with more low carbon, intermittent and decentralised energy sources coming onto the grid. The effect for distribution system operators (DSO), which manage energy flows across the power generation ecosystem, is to make managing the infrastructure more challenging and complex. 

Depsys, which refers to itself as ‘a cleantech company that empowers distribution grid managers to evolve their operations through digital technology’ hopes to support its customers in their increasingly evolving role. To do so, earlier in the year, it extended its quarterly grid Health Check reports from its GridEye grid monitoring and analytics solution  to its customer base for free. Company CCO Anja Langer Jacquin and Antony Pinto, head of technical,  discuss the technology and its findings.  

Heidi Vella (HV): What is the GridEye solution and how is different to what’s already on the market?

Anja Langer Jacquin (AJ): Our combined hardware and software solution called GridEye gives distribution system operators visibility and insights into how their distribution grid is performing. We currently have about 40 customers globally, all DSOs, or DNOs [distribution network operations] as you call them in the UK. Traditionally, the distribution grid does not have intelligence built into it but has merely acted as a transportation mechanism. 

But today, with all the changes happening to the grid, including the injection of renewable energy production locally, that gets input in very intermittent, unpredictable energy patterns, there’s now a need for intelligence with the objective of continuing the provision of the electricity maintaining quality and performance. 

Antony Pinto (AP): We capture the data and we analyse it, which is quite different from many other providers that rely on grid operator data, which tends to be unreliable. It’s an integrated, end-to-end solution incorporating GPS, communication, and sensors that’s easy to install. The hardware is a monitoring device composed of a voltage acquisition device and some sensors to measure different currents. This is combined with software modules so the user can visualise what is going on. 

HV: What extra value do the health check reports provide?

AP: Via the health check every quarter, the DSO is provided with a summary based on all the electrical measurements about the health of their grid, which points out different weak spots.

AJ: These health checks proactively make sense of the data captured, to help our customers understand what is going on in their grid and to know what it means and what actions it requires. Overall digitalisation of the utilities means assisting them in becoming comfortable with data analytics as a foundation for the operational decisions they make. In the past, without any real-time information, decisions were based on simulations and worst-case scenario planning and so forth. 

But now we can collect much more precise information, which allows DSOs to be more surgical in their focus and therefore reduce operational risk. In the past, it’s been a little bit like they’ve been driving a car without a dashboard but you need to know how much fuel you’ve got, how fast you’re driving, all these other things. Knowing and understanding different metrics and what they actually mean or having predictive indicators of something that is likely to happen is really useful. So that’s really what we achieve with the health checks. 

HV: How are the reports carried out? What is the technology behind it?

AP: We use different algorithms running inside the device installed in-field and also on the software modules, which collect and send data routinely but also when something has happened on the grid. For example, information about different aspects of voltage quality. A DSO may be aware something happened on their grid; there are some aspects you can already see with your eyes – under voltage for example – so there would be no need for digital monitoring devices if you don’t want to know the exact voltage levels. 

For other issues like voltage harmonics or voltage imbalances, if you don’t have a device measurement installed there, you will not see what the problem is, only that something strange is happening. By adding the GridEye solution and the health check it helps to be aware of, for example, whether voltage harmonics levels are quite high, meaning the DSO needs to be careful about how aggressively they plan the future grid build-out. 

Because maybe in five years, they may need to construct solar PV installations and then these limits will be an issue. By having the knowledge, the DSO can now say, let’s focus more on that part of the grid to prevent future problems. 

HV: So, can the technology save DSOs money?

AP: It enables better decision making, which brings down overall costs because DSOs can then allocate resources better, for both people and investments. Maybe they don’t need to reinforce the grid today, but if they didn’t have all the information they would have done so, just to be safe.  

As a society we are looking to increase electrification because we want to decarbonise, we are looking to accelerate the transition to renewable energies and move away from fossil fuels. All of this is putting pressure on the DSOs and many of them are having to push back since they lack the underlying data about the resilience of their grids. 

But if they have the knowledge and the data they have the opportunity to proactively direct focus to the parts of the grid that can be developed, whether its capacity or something else. Right now, they’re quite reactive. But we believe they have an opportunity to drive this energy transition. 

HV: Do you see regulation for DSOs changing?

AP: Absolutely. And that’s good because then you can drive changes at a broader scale and accelerate the energy transition because the better handling of the grid the more we can inject renewables. And at the same time, however, it’s challenging because regulation is always the last element of the puzzle. It changes on a five-yearly basis in most countries across Europe. That is a long time, so it’s always behind compared to where the market wants to be.

The UK, in my view, is quite far ahead from a regulatory standpoint  because it is promoting smart technologies instead of reinforcement, and they are agnostic as to whether the DNO will be spending from their capexor from their opexbudget. Whereas many other countries are still spending pure capexfor investments on assets that have a 20-40-year lifetime. This doesn’t fit in with a digital IoT mindset required.

HV: What are Depsys’ future plans?

AP: We have a very clear vision about the digitalisation journey of a DSO and it’s actually quite similar to what has been seen in most other sectors. It’s nothing revolutionary as such, but the reality is you first need to make sure you can monitor and gather reliable data and then structure that data. It’s a journey that each DSO is going through. 

Our Grid Eye solution, firstly, provides the foundation for capturing and structuring the data. What we are increasingly working on is what we’re calling ‘grid insights’, which includes the health checks, and are essentially more data interpretation. We can give the DSO the tools to make the right operational decisions. And, of course, we have growth ambitions to secure more customers.