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Living at the Edge of the Grid: Key Takeaways from Asian Utility Week 2019

Power grids have long delivered electricity supply from power producers to consumers across the world. Traditionally, innovation has taken place close to the source of electricity generation, at power stations or transmission infrastructure. Today, innovation is advancing towards the ‘edge’ of the grid, closer to consumers than ever before.

Today, innovation is advancing towards the ‘edge’ of the grid, closer to consumers

This renewed focus on the ‘edge’ of the grid is underpinned by the rise of ‘prosumers’ – consumers who now also produce their own electricity. ‘Grid edge’ technologies and solutions are increasingly surfacing to enable a new two-way grid, helping the electricity industry manage, distribute, and utilise power in this new emerging landscape. Connecting grid edge technologies such as smart meters and consumer analytics can even unlock benefits for a wider connected national ecosystem.

The emerging role of grid edge technology was a key element of discussion at the recent Asian Utility Week, held in Kuala Lumpur. With thought leaders and industry experts attending from around the world, here are 5 key takeaways to help understand the transformation to a grid edge future.


1. Technology is accelerating so stakeholders must keep up

Grid edge technology covers a wide range of innovation, from hardware to software, covering smart meters to renewable energy technologies and electric vehicle infrastructure. With the rapid pace of technological advancement, utility companies find themselves in a race to ensure they keep up. That means working with partners to leverage the latest technologies in a rapidly changing market.

The result of this accelerating rate of adoption is that grid edge opportunities such as Advanced Metering Initiatives (AMI) must be delivered in a timeframe that allows stakeholders to realise the greatest possible value.

“As we all know, with all technologies, it is moving so rapidly. If power companies are slow to implement it, you might find by the time it’s actually done and realised the value, it will have become obsolete,” Lim Teik Ken, Technical Head of AMI Project at Tenaga Nasional Berhad, was keen to point out.

Electric vehicles offer another example of this accelerating rate of change. Analysis by J.P. Morgan predicts that the number of electric vehicles (EV) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) will rise from 1 million today to 8.4 million by 2025. That will require significant investment in infrastructure and new technologies by industry to provide the necessary EV infrastructure and support systems, something that Tobias Falke, Head of Business Development for Envelio, highlighted can be a problem even in relatively mature markets like Germany.

“If you as a customer want to build, for example, a charging station for your electric vehicle, then at least in Germany, you have to ask the grid operator for permission. And in Germany, this process, because it is so inefficient, takes a long time (8 weeks maximum) but usually at least 6 weeks, and that is a process that we can really accelerate.

For example, for one customer in Germany we implemented a customer self-service webpage, where customers can just edit or enter his details on his connection request, and he can get feedback directly, fully automated. And that’s a real help for the customer.”

2. There is no one-size fits all model

The rapid pace of innovation creates a new imperative for industry stakeholders; avoiding the temptation to focus on a single solution. Ravi Krishnaswamy, Senior Vice President Energy, Sustainability and Industrial APC for Frost & Sullivan, shared, “There’s no one business model, no one technology option. There’s no one size fits all. Each country, each city, each utility will have their own customised solution. So there has to be both top down, meaning the regulators and government pushes things down.

There also has to be bottom up, meaning industry stakeholders, vendors, consumers, end users have to also do that bit in terms of green technology options, in terms of carbon free or carbon neutral energy, and of course leveraging many of these emerging edge technologies.”

William Temple, CEO of Ampotech, highlights how different solutions are being explored in Malaysia and Singapore. “It’s definitely a trend that is coming, and everyone is dealing with it. Utility companies are seeing a lot more renewables, and changes in the business model. At the same time building owners and operators are starting to use different tools, different software and actuators.

It’s really about changing from a one-way to a two-way interaction

We feel there is a natural intersection between these two things, and it should be possible for utility companies to get into the smart building and smart home business as well, which we’re starting to see now with some of the other utilities.

It’s really about changing from a one-way to a two-way interaction, with the end user. Traditionally generation is sending energy only to the end-users. But now we’re seeing more responsiveness and more distributed generation. In Singapore this is definitely a trend we’re seeing now. Singapore is pushing solar panels pretty aggressively, in terms of rooftops and buildings, and even floating solar panels.”

3. Consumer expectations are just as important as technological transformation

The ultimate goal of the energy industry is to provide affordable, sustainable and reliable power. Grid edge technology is important to this journey, but it must be accompanied by consumer support and education.

Managing consumer expectations is crucial for this transformation, but equally, power providers and consumers must be realistic about the benefits new technologies can offer. Advanced metering projects in Australia are one example where the delivery of such an initiative underperformed compared to consumer expectations, ultimately resulting in negative consumer sentiment.  Lim Teik Ken from TNB explains how adapting to consumer needs can inform an evolving grid edge initiative.

“We started off with cost efficiency NTL, it has very much evolved into offering what we now have to look into what the customers want. If we still hold onto this old paradox, we will perish in that sense. So embracing the power of the customer is so important, and you really have to move very quickly to meet that expectation.”


4. A smarter grid edge can unlock a smarter ecosystem

Innovations at the smart grid edge can also serve as a powerful enabler for wider smart technologies. Combining technologies utilised for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), such as smart meters, alongside other connected networks can help unlock a future of distribution and automation, giving rise to smart street lighting, smart water meters, and even 5G technologies.

we want to use the smart meters for other utilities, especially the water utilities

“When we build this canopy of network of RF mesh [smart meter network], we will be able to use the same network for three items. Number one is SCADA distribution information. So the substation that needs SCADA, within the 5.2 megahertz connectivity, would be able to be connected using the RF network,” shared Zulkifli Salahudin, Managing Director of Tenaga Nasional Berhad – IT.

“So smart streetlights; for example, in Melaka we’ve deployed about 300 smart streetlights using the same network. It enhances the mesh between the meters, and also the streetlights back to the grid. In the future what we are planning to do is to expand the smart streetlight not just for TNB streetlights, but also for streetlights owned by the Ministry or local councils. In addition, we want to use the smart meters for other utilities, especially the water utilities.”

5. Responsible use of quality data is vital

Grid edge technology provides the opportunity to use advanced data insight to make informed decisions, for utilities and customers alike. The first step on that journey is ensuring quality data forms the foundation of your model, something that Dr. Tobias Falke from Envelio, is passionate about championing: “It starts with data quality. That’s the basis for all kinds of digitisation and automation. If you don’t have a sufficient digital grid model you can’t do any kind of automation, because you have to rely on good data quality.”

In a world of connected data, it’s also equally important that we use that data responsibly and securely. Jurisdictions around the world are on different stages of this journey, with leaders such as the UK and the US state of California being at the forefront of smart data practice. That means regions like ASEAN can look to learn lessons in steering their own journey according to Ravi Krishnaswamy.

“Increasingly with the high-level connectivity the concern is also in terms of breaches into the privacy of customers, especially with video cameras. Many homes today have close secure cameras. So, there is a concern of real cyber-attack, not just for the grid network but for homes and businesses.

So clearly, I think we’re in early stages globally. Utilities in the US, UK, Australia are more advanced in terms of engaging with customers to leverage customer data. The UK has an agency that regulates all the data that comes from utilities and customers, and they’re able to make it open access for the industry. France, USA, following, Australia is lagging slightly. So that’s an area where there are countries taking the lead and maybe ASEAN will follow.”

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