A surge in demand for electricity, driven by growth in electric vehicles, smart cities, and heavy industry electrification, poses severe challenges to power companies that rely on antiquated infrastructure to service their customers. On the supply side, utilities are also being pressured by consumers and government regulators to integrate more renewable energy sources. These issues can be addressed through digitalization and grid modernization projects that power and utility companies are starting today.
We now know where the new energy journey is taking us. The energy transition will include changing business models, accelerated renewable energy grid integration, expanded smart grids and prosumer relationships, and growth in utility consulting services to help consumers better control their energy bills. Though this new journey presents many challenges, forward-looking utility industry stakeholders are recognizing the new opportunities presented by these market changes.
Legacy utility business models focused only on selling power and charging per kilowatt are no longer sufficient to achieve success while accommodating consumer preferences. Today, the ability to digitize utility operations opens the door to many new demand/response services that represent the potential for new revenue generation, higher resilience, and enhanced customer satisfaction.
Utility digitalization helps address modernization challenges
How do utility industry stakeholders alter their business models so that such business challenges can be addressed? The journey involves tailoring internal infrastructure so that data-driven decisions can ensure safer and more resilient delivery of service to consumers. Below are several ways utilities can address business challenges through digitization:
Limiting network downtime
Since more residences, plants, and commercial businesses are connected to the grid, unplanned shutdowns have a growing negative financial impact on utilities. Downtime events lead directly to revenue losses. In cases where stable access to power is deemed critical to the business, customers sometimes pursue legal action against the utilities when power loss incidents occur.
One way to minimize these risks is to equip sub-stations with high-efficiency industrial UPS or uninterruptable power supplies. The newest generation of these devices runs at 99% efficiency. That means utilities can save tens of thousands of dollars in yearly energy costs when replacing old-generation UPSs. In addition, these systems provide backup power when extreme weather conditions and unplanned shutdowns occur and can keep critical loads and data collection up and running through short-term power disruptions.
Balancing supply and demand
A small percentage of power grid networks in the United States are digitized. But that will change quickly as consumer and regulatory pressures for modernization and reduced downtime mount. More and more consumers want to sell power back to the utility to help fund their microgrids and renewable energy investments. These customers demand a central grid that enables a two-way flow of information and data. Digital communications allow rapid detection and reaction to changes in usage or consumption. Smart grids also have self-healing capabilities that pre-empt potential large-scale outages through correction and rerouting of supply. The smart grid approach also enables electricity customers to become active participants in maintaining higher network uptime.
Leveraging edge computing
The ability to implement edge computing requires the harnessing of IoT technologies, big data, and associated analytics. Many utilities are now beginning to deploy edge computing systems for these purposes. Edge computing represents the layer of physical compute and storage infrastructure that lies between the physical spaces where local source data is being generated (like substations and network operations centers) and the hyper-scale cloud. Once edge computing is deployed, utilities can unlock the benefits of predictive maintenance, remote inspections and supply and demand forecasting. They can also increase safety and security by using thermal vision cameras to detect anomalies and security threats on transmission and distribution lines, as well as substation equipment.
Utilities can achieve enhanced power network reliability and expanded demand/response capabilities by combining edge computing with smart grids. Edge computing deployments often come in the form of micro data centers. These are small preassembled, pre-tested, and integrated solutions configured into an enclosure. The racks, power distribution units, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), and management software are ready to operate before arriving at the end-user location. Since the core elements of the system all work together, end users in edge environments, most of whom are unfamiliar with IT, know that these systems can operate independently without any local support required. Additional security devices, such as racks with card key access and server room security cameras, can also easily be added to the micro data center configuration.
Modernize for a more resilient power grid
For many utility owners, the time to modernize is now. Once digitized systems such as smart meters, edge computing, and high-efficiency UPSs are introduced, new business models incorporating more customer services become feasible. With new-generation utility services, a cascading effect of benefits involving higher network uptime, more profitable and resilient prosumer activities, and higher customer satisfaction are attainable.