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Image: Andy Beecroft.
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Mapping and monitoring decentralised grids: the challenges facing utilities

Image: Andy Beecroft.

One-way distribution-centric energy networks are being replaced by distributed renewable grids in which energy production and storage are decentralised among many people and places. With this increasingly complex network architecture, energy production cannot be centrally scaled up or down in sync with demand. Local generators, household wind turbines, solar panels, and microgrids are decentralising energy generation. Electric vehicle-to-grid technology and community solar-sharing schemes are harnessing houses and cars as ‘batteries’ sharing power with the grid. Incentives for off-peak energy use are helping consumers manage demand.

The aim of this decentralisation and localisation of energy is to create smarter networks that continually balance the grid based on live data. This increasing sophistication demands that companies capture and understand network changes in real-time by integrating live data from all the people and assets on the ground. Silos between people and systems must be dissolved and static, centralised network maps must be opened up.

Legacy centralised maps cannot cope with decentralised grids

With energy production and storage now shared among many more places, vital production and usage data is fragmented. Using legacy GIS technology to centrally capture grid assets may have worked for a simpler distribution-centric grid model, but it is no longer the right management architecture for the distributed real-time electrical network of the future.

Many energy companies still use centralised, ‘closed’ network maps accessible only to specialist cartographers. There is a major gap between the office and the field, with vital information on recent repairs, upgrades, or new builds splintered among paper-based processes, maps, Excel spreadsheets and other applications. Complex network assets are often still represented in non-interactive 2D form, which means they are neither timely nor accurate and do not respond efficiently to the needs of mobile field teams that need to see and capture real-time network information. Continuing to use a centralised, legacy GIS approach compromises the ability to manage our increasing complex networks and exacerbates field update backlogs that can already take weeks or months to capture important field as-built data.

An incomplete view of the grid

This leaves many energy firms with inaccurate asset records and an incomplete picture of the current state of the grid. I have worked with utility companies where as many as 50% of their as-builts are wrong and I have spoken to another with 50,000 updates stuck in their as-built queue. Energy firms have a rich array of “field sourced” as-built network data from engineer teams and IoT devices such as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), but this data is currently fragmented.

Outdated network asset records will make it difficult to accurately manage network construction, maintenance, and disaster response or identify potential new markets for energy services. For example, field technicians need to rapidly update energy networks with details of additional generation capacity such as new vehicle-to-grid chargers coming online. They need to be able to quickly identify hazards, damage or degradation to local energy generating infrastructure such as micro-grids that could impact supply and demand across a renewable grid. Asset records must be up-to-date so that energy firms can predict and prevent pinch points by matching all energy network assets with data on new nearby EV charging networks or housing developments.

Power companies that lack oversight of the proximity of assets to nearby ecological features could also be more vulnerable to increasing hazards such as extreme weather events. Renewable energy grids depend on an accurate geospatial understanding of the local environment. This requires genuinely current and comprehensive geospatial data on how each aspect of the network intersects with the people and places that depend on it.

A live, local view

The key is to understand that, just as energy generation is being pushed from the centre to the edges of a network, energy data must now be drawn from the edges of a network too. Decentralisation of power requires a parallel decentralisation of network asset management. Some pioneering companies such as Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) are now enabling energy grids to be accessed and updated in real-time by workers in the field using smartphones and tablets. Instead of seeing decentralisation of energy as a threat to their visibility and control over the grid, forward-thinking companies are turning this to their advantage by allowing everyone from field technicians to engineers to view, understand and rapidly update network asset information.

They are harnessing data from local sources to create a rich, real-time overview of their next generation distributed networks. This decentralised, mobile approach allows field technicians to correct as-builts and asset records with accurate geospatial context. Utilities can identify and prevent network vulnerabilities to the extreme weather events recently increasing in the UK and elsewhere. When Typhoon Faxai damaged TEPCO’s network, a mobile geospatial system was used to allow both office-based managers and field crews to rapidly view critical network information, blackout locations, and damage in any location. The easy-to-use system is based on Google Maps technology, making it simple for field technicians and construction teams to find unfamiliar locations and nearby assets, enabling them to target repairs efficiently and effectively.

This modern geospatial approach also enables more ‘joined-up’ planning to reduce the cost and risk and maximise the market for new infrastructure. Planned infrastructure can be combined with local data on nearby hazards or planned new electric vehicle networks to maximise return on investment and minimise risk. Crucially, as intermittent energy renders grids more dependent on managing local consumption and production, it allows operators to draw on live, local data to balance the grid. The decentralisation of energy grids must be matched by a parallel decentralised network management strategy so that energy operators can meet the challenges and reap the rewards of our increasingly complex electrical networks.

Richard Weiss's photo

Richard Weiss European regional manager

Richard Weiss is European regional manager at Cambridge headquartered geospatial software company IQGeo.


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