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4 min read

Modern Energy Distribution: Changes are Closer than they Appear

Modern Energy Distribution: Changes are Closer than they Appear

We have all heard the terms SmartGrid, MicroGrid, Distributed Energy Resources (DERs), Green Energy and so on. Yet to the average North American energy consumer, it appears that the overall method of how we generate and deliver electric energy is "chugging along," business as usual, without much change in price, method or reliability. In many ways, energy distribution is like the passenger side mirror of our cars: Everyday we see that “Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” We know the changes in utilities are coming; we can somewhat see them, yet it’s a side-mirror kind of viewpoint that we can glance at and ignore. Until now. 

In the world of electricity generation/transmission/distribution/storage/stability/security, we cannot be looking back. The world ahead is full of changes driven by – but not limited to – the following:

  • Regulatory change/demands - for example, the retirement of fossil fuel generation.
  • Consumer sentiment - desire for clean and renewable wind/solar/non-carbon energy generation.
  • Costs - wind and solar can be more cost effective to install than fossil-fueled generation.

At the end of each day, we want systems that provide us with what we have come to expect at a price we are willing to pay. When we turn on the lights, they come on and stay on. Sure, Utility X could come out with a plan for all renewable and storage energy, nano second technology to keep your iphone happy, and all for the low (and completely hypothetical) price of $1.50/kWh. Any takers?

Smart Grid Meets Legacy Automation

Today, utilities across the globe use numerous automation systems in the course of generating and delivering electricity to their end customers. Many of these systems have been operating for half a century, even more. Throughout their long history, there has been a fairly common denominator. The device information and updates (“device file”) has been used for transporting the information to a central system where it is "unpacked" and inserted to a database. Once in the database, the data becomes available to applications and users that have access to the database. And this largely works, until we try to employ systems at the edge or want to share data in the new electric utility world.

These legacy systems used expensive, bulky computers to handle the collection, analysis and storage of the data. Centrally located, they were architected much like the hub on a bicycle wheel. As computing power becomes smaller, more powerful and more secure, more capable computers are available to the electric grid for use across the energy ecosystem – not just in the "bunker." At the same time, there have been numerous advancements and cost decreases in networking. Fiber to the sub, once a dream configuration, is now a common option along with a full array of wireless capabilities.

Security from the Start

Pull up the news on your iPhone today and chances are, you’ll find an article about the latest cyber attack on the energy sector. Security matters – both cyber security and physical security. Many of the aging grid systems did not, do not, and without major expense or replacement will not (until now) be able to secure their data or devices.

Enter data centricity and the Layered Databus. Earlier this year, I did an introductory webinar titled: Moving Electric Utilities from Device to Data Centricity, which discussed the difference between moving device files – "envelopes or boxes" of information – from the device to the central servers/control system to creating data, pure data at the device level.

In a data-centric world, we do not move the whole file, instead, we “liberate” or “federate” the data at (or near) the device where the data is created. And this is where we can instantly and with fine-grain detail secure/encrypt it and distribute the data on the Connext Databus.

Let me pause so you can read that again. Is this new? Where has this magic been?? Why am I just hearing about this now? Nope, it’s not new. RTI has been around for 15+ years. We know we can break apart device files and make data secure, remotely shareable, and work the way you need it too (see more about these capabilities here).

With distributed computing, decisions can be made almost everywhere (no longer "only" at the central server). RTI's CEO Stan Schneider recently asked: "Do you want to be in a self-driving car that is collecting the individual device files, putting them on a wireless network for transport to a central server where it is processed, analyzed and made actionable – so it can be sent back to you?" The last time I checked, the frequency in North America is still right around 60 Hertz (Hz), meaning decisions need to be made quickly.

Changes, even at a relatively manageable rate of 60Hz, can cascade quickly when things are not coordinated or available for fast response. Utilizing RTI’s Connext databus, utilities can leverage data centricity and then further leverage a layered databus approach. In this environment, asset performance management (APM) and maintenance type data goes on one databus, while operational, secure data goes on another. In addition, one databus may have data that never leaves a station, while another may be connected to multiple stations, while another may be connected to the corporate network. The options are essentially up to you.

Future Proofing your Investments

Today, we all want to enjoy the stability and security we have come to expect from our electricity providers – and at the same (or even cheaper) rates. And that means that to keep costs low, our providers are unlikely to do a whole lot of "rip and replace." The good news is that RTI can help protect and modernize what is already there. Recently, we took a legacy RTU protocol and secured it and put it on the databus in a matter of days – a far cry from how protocol development used to happen. And once on the databus, the data became available for immediate incorporation with other devices – up to and including modern connected devices.

Enabling the Future

If this sounds like a dream, know that it’s happening today. RTI is modernizing legacy equipment, enabling the world’s foremost IIoT-type solutions and getting everyone ready for the bold new world ahead in smart grid. The databus and the layered databus are here now and ready to help your immediate and future needs. So from a smart grid perspective, that means the words in the side mirror no longer need to read "Objects appear closer than they are." In fact, the words now need to read "It's here."