Building ecosystems to support smart energy transition

Energy production and consumption is going through a major transformation, driven by worries over climate change and enabled by digitization. Reaching environmental goals by decarbonizing the energy sector requires global co-innovation and digital infrastructure that is able to deliver real-time data insights and control. How will 5G, IoT, edge computing, VR/AR, data lakes and cybersecurity play a vital role?

Affordable energy is vital to powering transport and industry, in addition to providing heating, lighting, cooking and entertainment in our homes. It underpins the global economy. Still largely derived from fossil fuels, energy accounts for nearly two-thirds of total greenhouse gases produced worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. Environmental regulations, changing consumer expectations and the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) are accelerating the deployment of renewable energy technologies. At the same time, new business models are emerging, enabling consumers and businesses to sell energy from solar panels on their rooftops or energy stored in their EVs back to the grid.

But as the World Energy Council points out, the move to decarbonized and decentralized energy raises some major challenges, including grid reliability, resilience and cyber threats. To stay on track with climate change objectives, innovative technologies and business models are essential.

“No country, company, city or community can achieve the energy transition alone or all at once. All technologies and innovations will be needed, connecting across countries and sectors and engaging multiple stakeholders and diverse policy shapers,” explains the World Energy Council.

Smart grids will be essential to enable two-way communication between the utility and its customers and the sensing along the transmission lines. They consist of computer processing power, automation systems, sensors, controllers, actuators and data lakes working with the electrical grid to respond digitally to rapidly changing electricity demand.

According to François Bélorgey, Innovation Development VP at the Technology and Global Innovation Division, Orange, “5G looks set to become the foundation of decentralized energy production and the smart grid, supporting mass IoT sensor networks for real-time data monitoring, an essential element of the energy transition.”

Traditionally, electricity is produced in a power plant (coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, solar, gas or biofuel) by releasing steam, which drives a turbine, paired with an alternator. The electricity produced is carried under high voltage in the equivalent of a telecoms backbone and is then distributed via a medium- and low-voltage capillary network through to the end customer, where it is instantaneously used. A crucial element is maintaining the frequency from end to end (50 Hz in Europe, 60 Hz in the U.S.) despite jolts, which occur when a consumer’s electronic device is connected or disconnected or the energy company’s power production unit is switched on or off. The whole electrical system needs to balance supply and demand. Any imbalance can cause varying degrees of blackouts.

A smart grid needs to be able to handle daily peaks in demand – especially in the morning and evening. This means unpredictable solar and wind power needs to be stored in decentralized, battery-based energy storage systems – most notably in EVs. In the future, analysts predict consumers will be able to plug in their vehicles to take electricity from the grid when demand is low and supplies are plentiful (potentially at a lower cost) and sell it back to the grid at times of peak demand when it’s not sunny or windy.

Bélorgey notes that, “A smart grid is a produced and stored energy distribution network that’s managed with the aim of minimizing power losses based on real-time and forecast data, including information captured from the end consumer. In reality, the main difference between a traditional power grid and a smart grid is that smart grids are equipped with an information system used dynamically in real time, enabled by 5G, IoT sensor networks, edge computing, cloud data lakes, VR/AR devices and IT/OT security.”

Innovation and collaboration: key to energy transition

In Europe, Orange Business Services has been supporting energy distributor Enedis with its transition to a smarter electricity distribution network. Orange is connecting hundreds of thousands of communicating objects across the company’s electricity distribution network in France along with 3,000 sites. This will allow Enedis to develop energy flow data collection, real-time surveillance of electrical substations and automated self-healing.

Orange believes the COVID-19 crisis is likely to accelerate demand for green energy and EVs around the world. During the COVID-19 crisis, consumers have become more concerned about a wider range of threats that face our world. According to the United Nations (UN) Secretary General António Guterres, “We must act decisively to protect our planet from both the coronavirus and the existential threat of climate disruption. As we spend huge amounts of money to recover from the coronavirus, we must deliver new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition.”

Technological innovation is also essential if energy transition is to keep up with demand, including in emerging economies. The United Nations estimates the global population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050, up from 7.7 billion in 2019.

Enabling technologies

There is a need for daily load and condition data analysis to enhance quality of supply and reduce maintenance costs. Technologies like Active Network Management (ANM) use real-time IoT data to balance supply and demand on the smart grid. Real-time and predictive monitoring of energy flows can avoid congestion, reduce peak demands and increase the integration of massive scale renewable energy solutions, and predictive maintenance enables outages to be avoided.

Meanwhile, 5G will be vital to support a new class of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) devices to enable “smart operations workers” to get hands-free access to data insights and maintenance instructions at their moment of need. This can boost productivity while increasing worker safety in dangerous high-voltage environments.

In Bélorgey’s view, 5G will be needed to support smart grids, smart charging (for vehicles as well as battery-based industrial energy storage systems) and virtual power plants. “5G provides latency of a few milliseconds in order to react in less time than a voltage waveform, as well as very high reliability of over 99.9%.”

“It can also guarantee connectivity for several million smart metering devices from which data can be collected and enables the measurement and traceability of power exchanges between prosumers (consumers who produce energy), particularly for billing purposes.”

“There is also the need for local edge computing processing power in the control/feedback loops, particularly in cases where a millisecond is untenable when it comes to alarms concerning the safety of workers or continuity of power supplies.”

Orange believes 5G will enable the real-time enterprise. The energy sector is a prime example. Currently, the manager of the power grid is responsible for maintaining the frequency and balance of the network. It oversees this in a centralized manner, based on orders submitted – usually every half hour to power plant operators.

However, in a bottom-up system based on renewable energies, there’s no centralized production based on power plants and turbines, which are few in number, stable and predictable. This means that the grid inertia needs to be calculated and anticipated, while “intelligence” is essential for consumption, storage and production management systems.

“5G can help to reduce the frequency balancing interval from several minutes to one tenth of a millisecond from end to end (the period of the voltage waveform is, for example, 20 milliseconds for a frequency of 50 Hz)," notes Bélorgey. “This also must happen in a coordinated manner because very large numbers of connected devices are involved. One of the major challenges is to avoid any surges, which are particularly dangerous for electronic devices and ultimately prevent any uncontrolled power cuts.”

Bélorgey believes network slicing will also be key. “For example, you could build isolated 5G networks on request, with quality of service and network slicing differentiations adapted to the various applications of the grid – for example, supporting low-latency local grid monitoring or supporting digital services.”

Data platforms or data lakes integrating network and business data will empower users to collaborate and analyze data harvested from the network and smart grid in different ways. This includes enabling consumers to monitor and reduce their own power usage. It can also help energy suppliers to identify consumers who are likely to be most receptive to buying new services.

IT/OT security will also be vital. According to Lorenzo Veronesi, Research Manager at IDC, “Cybersecurity must be put front and center in strategic decisions as the essential enabler of digital transformation. This is not only because cybersecurity threats can disrupt operations, but also because they can put employees, society and the environment at risk. Securely connecting data across IT and OT domains is essential for information continuity to enable many business processes.”

This is something that Orange Cyberdefense addresses through its IT/OT security portfolio, helping customers in the energy sector to identify threats, protect themselves from attack, detect security breaches that have already occurred, respond to new and ongoing attacks and anticipate new risks.

A new era of digital business ecosystems

We’re seeing a new world emerging in which people are not just connected to other people, but to objects, workflows, business partners and infrastructures – all powered by data. Orange Business Services defines this as the “Internet of Enterprises” era of business ecosystems, which demands a smarter approach to data management.

5G is a technology whose moment has come. Fiber isn’t usually financially viable for smart grids, given the very high number of connections that need to be established, often with mobile objects, for smart grid programs; whereas, 4G’s latency is too high to handle all of these needs. Meanwhile, 5G’s specific capabilities enable the autonomous management of the green grid, its more effective integration into the general grid, and comprehension and reaction guarantees according to both real-time and data protection demands.

Bélorgey concludes, “Without the innovative contributions from 5G, there would be no energy revolution, and the transition would be hindered. While 4G enabled smart automation, 5G will allow local power grids to be autonomous. 5G looks set to soon become the foundation of decentralized energy production, an essential element of the energy transition.”

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Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.