Photo by Patrick Daxenbichler,
Patrick Daxenbichler

The Grid: Smart and Autonomous

April 2, 2020
Self-managing technologies are bridging the gap between the traditional centralized grid and today's growing distributed grid.

It is hard to imagine the electric power grid operating autonomously. Even the name autonomous grid sounds like a science fiction scenario, or does it? The idea of the autonomous grid has been around for a really long time, but like so many advanced theories, the necessary technology needs development. The noteworthy thing about digital technology is it keeps advancing, and a few years ago a lot of the necessary building blocks began to take shape.

Transformational technologies like distributed energy resources (DER) and renewables will definitely be able to use the abilities of an autonomous technology as their penetration increases. Let's look at what is meant by autonomous. One of the best definitions comes from the Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). NREL defines autonomous as, "Capable of making decisions and operations without humans in the loop."

It is a self-managing technology, with the ability to adjust to the real-time dynamics of the grid. The technology is being applied to transform today's grid into an autonomous energy grid (AEG). An AEG is a fast acting, self-driving power system that can make decisions on its own. As a result, it is also self-organizing, self-optimizing, and utilizes narrow artificial intelligence (AI) for control.

Fact from Fiction

The standard mental imagine most of us have for autonomous probably isn't a positive one, but it should be. It is a good bet that most of us use an autonomous vehicle nearly every workday. If you use an elevator, you do. That is correct, an elevator is an autonomous vehicle, but it's called self-service not autonomous. Self-service elevators were developed around 1900, but people weren't comfortable with the technology and they refused to use them. The experts, of the day, were totally against the technology predicting all manner of calamities if the technology was allowed — sound familiar?

That all changed in 1945 when the elevator operators went on strike in New York City. It almost shut down the city and impacted business. Suddenly self-service elevators weren't so bad, and the technology was adopted. A few years later automatic self-service elevators were being installed in buildings around the world. Self-service (autonomous) elevators became common place and the collective consciousness moved on to other topics. Today, no one gives a second thought about using them.

Interconnected Applications

For AEGs to be feasible there are some advanced digital technology building blocks that have to work together to make AEG technology work. AEGs are not going to happen without taking advantage of both the physical and virtual world technologies because its foundation is set in both. Fortunately, there is an advanced digital technology that is focused exactly on that aspect — digital twins.

Digital twin technology links the physical world with the virtual world in a unique manner. Keeping it simple, digital twinning takes advantage of smart grid’s interconnectivity of intelligent sensors transducers and advanced communication systems. The physical devices produce big data in astounding amounts. At this point, the virtual world takes over with cloud-based computing technology and sophisticated software including built-in narrow AI for big-data analytics.

It's what IBM called "predictive insights," which enables relationships to happen across technological boundaries. Digital twin technology provides the user with understanding through modelling and monitoring, but that isn’t all. It also predicts what will happen, and optimize what is taking place. In other words, digital twinning supplies tangible tools from this virtual reality for the physical grid. 

By wrapping all these interrelated technologies together, companies such as ABB, Bentley, GE, IBM, Siemens, and others have opened the door for digital twin technology to be applied on transmission grid and distribution networks. The development of these applications are critical for the development of the AEG, but there is still a long way to go before we see the widespread application of AEG technology on the grid.

Another digital building block technology needed in the development of AEGs is the virtual power plant (VPP). It has been put in the spotlight by the behind-the-market (BTM) distributed energy resources (DER) market. VPP technology allows thousands of BTM-DER devices to operate similarly to a larger grid-scale brick and mortar power plant. Like the digital twin application, the VPP component is one more element needed the development of AEGs.

BTM-DER Trifecta

Let's look at BTM-DER technology. It's one of the fastest growing technologies on the grid because it has represents a trifecta of customer needs. DER gives the customer a choice of energy products, it is super user friendly, and its prices are dropping constantly. With all of that going for it, it is no wonder that industrial, commercial, and residential customers have embraced the technology as they have.

Because of the growing numbers of BTM-DER devices (rooftop solar, fuel cells, batteries, electric vehicles, etc.) the customer base has morphed into prosumers and prosumagers. These two groups have recognized that the technology offers them the ability to monetize their BTM-DER investment. It gives them the opportunity to enter the distribution market, which is starting to attract the attention of some of the grid’s stakeholders.

The 2019 Black & Veatch (B&V) "Strategic Directions Report" asked the participating utilities "if they anticipate the introduction of distribution markets for DER owners?" The report said 36.8% said yes and 16.7% said no. Remarkably 46.5% responded that they didn't know (the full report is available on the B&V website). Navigant Research published a report in 2019 saying, the global annual revenue for DER capacity is expected to grow from $172.5 billion in 2019 to $649.6 billion in 2028. With figures like these, B&V’s "didn't" category should be substantially reduced in size.

Depending on who is quoting the figures, the numbers of installed DER devices is growing tremendously. The figures run from millions to hundreds of millions, but the important take-away is the amount of individual BTM-DER devices that will be unmanageable with traditional methods in the not-too-distant future, which is why VPP technology is so important to the grid.

AEG Activity

That is the reason it is so important to see action from DOE in the form of funding for projects related to this type of activity. AEG technology needs a great deal of computer power. It also needs standards and standardization. In 2019, DOE announced it was funding the Grid Modernization Lab Call Projects with US$80 million to be spent over three years. It is a partnership between DOE and the National Laboratories. Among the projects, NREL is working to develop a method for aggregating a variety of market DERs. PNNL (Pacific Northwest National Laboratory) has a project focused on enabling networked microgrids and component DERs to operate in an intelligent manner using collaborative autonomy concepts.

Another DOE project is a partnership between PNNL, NREL, and Siemens to develop an energy management system that can coordinate distributed microgrids to work together. The system will autonomously restore power during blackouts using diverse technologies and smart invertors.

NREL has published several papers and press releases discussing AEG research. They see the AEG as a bottom-up configuration starting with campuses and communities, which makes a lot of sense when dealing with a machine as complex and complicated as the electrical grid.

In keeping with that philosophy, there have been some interesting technical development projects. Hawaiian Electric Companies (HECO) has a grid modernization plan and a mandated goal of 100% renewable generation by 2045. By some estimates they have about 250,000 inverters on their system from rooftop solar systems, and the number keeps growing. An AEG would be advantageous in this area, but HECO and NREL are starting with autonomous advanced inverter functionality, which manages the individual devices.

Another project is the Holy Cross Energy (HCE) and NREL DER management partnership in Basalt, Colorado, U.S. The partnership, which set up an autonomous energy grid to share electricity among solar panels, batteries, heaters, and vehicles, connected several homes in a neighborhood in the Basalt Vista Affordable Housing Community.

NREL said, "The equipped homes can exchange energy and services with neighbors, matching generation and demand intelligently and on the fly while respecting the reliability limitation of the local grid." The partnership stated, "The approach has been described as a virtual power plant and is the outcome of field-advancing algorithms that only existed in imaginations several years ago." Their motto is "think big, start small."

The building blocks of an AEG are available, but they haven’t been turned into a network of technologies required to work together efficiently yet. Narrow AI has been infused into every digital technology applied to the grid. Digital twin systems have been deployed as have VPP made up of thousands of BTM-DER systems. Self-directed asset management systems are making decisions at utilities around the world. It's going to be very interesting watching all these diverse applications being integrated into an AEG system capable of self-operation.

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