How can digitalisation support energy transformation?

18th June 2018
Anna Flockett

We are officially in a digital age, there is no escaping that, but have you ever wondered how digitalisation will affect different sectors? Well Engineering Specifier editor Anna Flockett spoke to Adrian Timbus, Technology and Solutions Manager in Smart Grid and Renewables at ABB to find out more about what digitalisation holds for the energy sector, and to learn more about virtual power plants.

Can you explain to me what a virtual power plant is?  
A virtual power plant is the concept to connect various assets which are not electrically connected to each other into a control system, which is manned to monitor and control them, in terms of the power or the energy consumed or produced.

The assets can be of various sizes such as residential, rooftops or towers, they could be residential energy storage or alternatively they could be a more mid-range commercial and industrial size, with energy storage. This also includes wind turbines and smaller solar plants, which then are all connected into a control system and normally what ABB take out of this plant is the contribution in terms of power and energy, which is somehow sold on a different energy market. Therefore the control system has advantages if it is a real time system, as it is able to react to the market signals, in case of some event that may occur in the grid.

Of course within the virtual power plant there can be different modules, and there is a form of management programme to try to automate all the assets as much as possible because we are talking about a big number of assets that need to be connected. It is more like using some of the techniques from the internet – you just plug in the cable to get an identification number and then you are automatically connected to the system.

The beauty of virtual power plants is that they can be used to monetise the capacity and capabilities of the market.

When it comes to the energy market you need to provide your inputs for the following day, so that they are closer to real time. The various markets are different in different countries so this is a challenge for the aggregator, as this is across the markets, but take the European market for example - it is more unified than other markets.

A market communication module is required to exchange all the information with the market and with the contribution of the market you can understand how much revenue you can make, and how to split these within the virtual power plant

What does the complexity look like?
The adoption of new generation and load technologies challenges current operating practices.

New generation technologies provide advantages such as:

  • Weather dependent, volatile power production
  • Power electronics interfaces, no more natural inertia
  • Digital control which is more important than ever

New load technologies provide:

  • New loading patterns driven by the emergence of roof top solar, batteries and e-mobility behind the meter
  • Power electronics interfaces affecting power quality
  • Prosumers want to play and active role

New digital technologies bring:

  • Emergence and adoption of cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Higher bandwidth and higher speed communications
  • Better sensors to digitise the assets

What will characterise power systems in the future?

Essentially a more complex system, integrating new technologies, new players and new ways of doing business.

With more complexity this will lead to large interconnected systems with a highly distributed generation. It will allow a broad range of connected devices, from very small entities to bulk, highly centralised assets that are more accessible and finally it will mean various technologies and aspects coming together – such as batteries, power electronics, digitisation, communications and more. 

A larger ecosystem will mean consumers can increase their role in the energy system, and millions of legally independent actors can be technically connected and require coordination. Increasing the size of the ecosystem will also lead to electrifications of other sectors, such as transport and heating.

By increasing the demands it will lead to a greener, more sustainable energy sector, with openness for unforeseen new players, and additionally system users can still expect affordable and reliable supply with electricity, with improved power quality.

New concepts will mean service oriented business models, grid users and also service providers with gain opportunities through digitalisation and a new division of work will be developed between transmission and distribution. This will lead to the evolution of energy and power markets.

We should be digitising the energy sector as digitalisation supports ambitions in terms of sustainability, quality of supply and cost of energy.

Let’s talk about ABB Ability…
ABB Ability is a digitalisation trend platform which is used across all businesses ABB is involved with.

Prior to its launch a year and a half ago, the ABB Ability companies were using various systems and platforms that were scattered all over the place, but now it is all under one umbrella and considers that technologies that are evolving. This special program is designed to align everything.

This is an open ecosystem for customers and partners to develop value added solutions, which delivers customer benefits including up-time, speed and yield and is done by providing efficiency and scale.

What cyber security do you need to factor in?
Security has always been an issue, it was just operational technologies that needed cyber security previously, but now there is more of a clash.

The ABB Ability is well secured for users, and with IT there is always the want to improve security. This is where the clash comes in, the OT and IT coming in together.

Security of an asset is a challenge, as products are engineered to come together, so ABB is working to define the cyber security issues that will arise during the journey.

However, with energy physical security can also be an issue as many people will have access into premises and access to products, so there is always the threat that the transformer leads can be plugged in and allow the wrong people into the network.

Further talk around cyber security is good for us as it is the new issue steadily rising, physical security has always been there, but newer companies may not have experienced any issue like this.

So what can ABB do?
Some other sectors have embraced digitalisation more than the energy sector and here we have seen the success.

Look where the energy sector is now, there are lots of things happening. Renewables are seeing their first distribution, and the assets here are all related to the interne. This is necessary to be connected and advance, everything now needs to be connected.

This can also help global warming. Being connected to the internet shows the technologies can be controlled but have more flexibility than traditional ones such as gas and hydrogen.  Control systems are necessary in supporting growth in the grid, and as wind turbines continue to grow (the statistics are in the favour of this method) they prove energy can be economically feasible.

The speed of wind farms being installed is very quick, you can produce ten times more of these in a tenth of the time, so the next step is taking this further and how well established we make virtual power plants to contribute to wind farms.

The energy sector is experiencing a tremendous transformation, and digitalisation is a great opportunity to enable this. Digitalisation will be accomplished through complexity this is if the energy sector increases dramatically and the speed of change will be faster than we have ever seen it before.

There is no doubt that digitalisation is happening and is happening now. Therefore we need to get ready otherwise the security of energy supply is compromised.

Digitalisation offers a great opportunity for us to cope with the transformation and new technologies, concepts and products that are already available – we just need to integrate and further enhance them. In terms of ABB the company has taken a step and created a digital organisation across the group.

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