Built on infrastructure that’s been in place for 100 years, the Energy Grid remains one of the greatest engineering marvels of the 20th Century. But can today’s Power Grid withstand the requirements for true digital transformation? Erik Felt, Market Development Director - Future Grid at RTI, joins us to explain why current modernization efforts may already be antiquated and that a better solution is needed.
In Episode 51 of The Connext Podcast:
- [0:14] As of now, what are the current buzzwords in the Energy industry?
- [1:30] Can you tell me what’s making people excited in the world of Energy right now?
- [3:34] Why is there a need for a better solution?
- [5:15] What major differences will end-consumers see from the Smart Grid?
- [7:00] What about facilities and facilities operators? What benefits would they gain from the Smart Grid?
- [11:06] You mentioned the Smart Grid would be able to identify problems. Is this a form of AI?
- [13:21] Why do you think Connext DDS is a tailor-made solution for the problems the Energy industry is trying to solve?
- [Blog] Distributed Energy Resources (DER) and the Electric Utility: The Shift from “If” to “How”
- [Datasheet] RTI in Energy
- [Podcast] Top IIoT Use Cases Enabled by DDS
- [Webinar] How to Design the DER-Enabled Utility Grid of the Future
- [Whitepaper] How to Gain Visibility and Collaborative Control over Distributed Energy Resources (DERs)
Hello, everybody and welcome to another episode of The Connext Podcast. Today I'm joined by Erik Felt, the Market Development Director here at RTI. Erik, thanks for joining us.
My pleasure, it’s good to be here.
As of now, what are the current buzzwords in the Energy industry?
Well, today we're here to talk about transforming the Energy Grid. When it comes to IIoT, energy is a big topic right now. And I think it's good, because it's a topic that not too many people are briefed on when it comes to IIoT, as opposed to a topic like automotive. So, while I’ve got you here, I'd like to start things off by asking you what the buzz is, what big things are happening in energy right now?
There's a lot of stuff going on. Every time we turn on the news, it seems like there's something going on in the energy market or the energy field. As everybody probably knows, generation is changing pretty quickly. One of the big things there is that economics have changed. All of a sudden, wind and solar are actually cheaper to put in than building coal plants. So that happened a lot of years ahead of where we thought it was going to, and that's being fueled by a few different things.
We're able to make bigger wind farms faster and we're better equipped to make solar panels. We're seeing economies of scale there, and those are happening faster than we ever thought they would.
We're also seeing people take pride in ownership. Look at the rooftop solar environment. There's rooftop solar everywhere we look, particularly here in California. People are taking an interest and they want to be contributing. So a lot of things are going on.
Can you tell me what’s making people excited in the world of Energy right now?
As somebody who works in the industry, can you tell me what's making people excited in the world of energy right now?
Yeah, I think an interesting point is that regardless of where people stand on climate change, everybody sees a role that they can play. And that's really driving a lot of things from the corporations, all the way down to the private homeowner, or even renters. Utilities are starting to see that there are real opportunities to go out there and become involved with their customers. We work with a utility that is actually installing the EV chargers in the garages, so instead of being somebody that would just go out and hook it up, then you own it, much like you would an appliance or anything else. They're actually taking an active role in providing the car charger, almost leasing it to the homeowner if you will, and then seeing how they can use that. It becomes a participant in the grid, and we're going to see that expand a lot as we go forward.
Another thing that utilities are bringing to the market is working with their customer base to improve resiliency. So resiliency is a word that we're going to associate with 2019 for years. We've known for a long time how to control a microgrid. We've known for a long time how to operate a campus, be it connected to the grid or not. Another area that I think people will associate with 2019 when we look back in a few years, is the word resilience.
With a lot of media attention this year going into the wildfires and the outages that were caused by trying to prevent the wildfires and so forth, microgrids are getting more and more attention. It's on people's minds. We've known for years how to do microgrids, but now we're actually starting to look at how microgrids could be improving quality of life for people across the country. Military bases, hospitals, university campuses: Lots and lots of people are getting into the resilience topic and looking at ways that they can improve their ability to recover after natural disasters or unplanned outages.
Why is there a need for a better solution?
The grid for the last 100 years has been dominated by the idea of central generation, coal plants, gas plants, hydro electric plants, etc. Can you talk about why the current model is becoming more antiquated and why there's a need for a better solution?
Sure. If you think about utilities today, what do you think of? It's big, heavy, slow changing, big plants and everything else. And as the grid has evolved over the past 100 years, the model has been based on that centralized model. In order to get the generation that we needed, we had to do it at scale, so you built one plant and it fed, or provided energy for, millions of people.
Well, the big plants are under a lot of pressure from regulators and public sentiment and economics, as we've already touched on. It's cheaper now to put in wind and solar, but we don't put in wind and solar in one spot that feeds millions of people. So we end up with many more systems that are spread further and further apart.
So what we're seeing change is that large, heavy industrial...I don't know what other words we want to use on generation, but in essence, really big central items are being retired. They're going offline now. Regardless of what somebody's position on climate change is, if it's a coal fired plant, it has emissions, and people are getting excited about finding another way to do that. And that other way to do that is with Distributed Energy Resources. So we're seeing more wind, more solar, more people putting in private systems. It's an exciting time.
What major differences will end-consumers see from the Smart Grid?
So as we start to see this adoption take place, what major differences will the average consumer see from the smart grid?
The smart grid is an interesting term. It's been around for a long time. Our grid is pretty smart already. What I think we're going to see more of as we go forward is really an intelligent grid, or I want to say, something other than smart grid.
Do you feel like that word gets misused sometimes?
I think it does. And like I say, it's been around for quite a while. It implies that we don't have a smart grid, but we do. The grid's very highly coordinated. It's the engineering marvel of the 20th century. Very complex, completely interconnected, self protecting, etc. However, it's not neural. It doesn't have a nervous system that spreads from the highest levels of generation to somebody's meter or even beyond somebody's meter.
So I think one of the things that consumers are going to see is more and more choice, more and more ability to control the comfort or the economics of their life. I envision the day where you look on your phone and you say, “the wind stopped blowing, it got cloudy, and it's 100 degrees.” Well, energy is going to be more expensive, and I think consumers are going to have the option to say, I want to be comfortable, or I want to charge my car or I want to use the energy out of my battery. So we're going to be able to tailor what our life looks like and choose whether we want performance and comfort or savings and efficiencies.
What about facilities and facilities operators? What benefits would they gain from the Smart Grid?
I'd like to expand on this idea of what the changes in the energy industry mean for the average consumer. It seems like advances in energy happen behind the scenes if you're not aware of it, or maybe you aren’t somebody who reads the news. You just pay your PG&E bill, and you get your energy wherever you get it. But let's get a bit more specific. Say for a four-person household in a residential area, what would this smart grid look like? What are these advances going to look like for that demographic?
Again, I think there's going to be that choice, where people can tailor their energy use for what they want. If they want convenience, or if they want cost savings, or if they want to be a word that is relatively new now, called "net negative", where people are contributing green energy onto the grid. People are going to have that choice.
Perhaps your car is not just charged, but your car charges. Maybe your car runs the inverter that powers your house during high energy cost times. Another thing that I think we're going to start seeing pretty soon is an idea of what I like to refer to as the neural grid. We've got a physically connected grid today, but we don't have a digital grid yet. It's there, yes, but a digital grid doesn't connect to everybody's house that's out there. When that happens, I think we'll have much more ability to look at the overall grid - not as a bunch of consumers, but as a bunch of coordination points and that's going to be quite a change.
As most people know with our current model, there are things called outages that can be caused by storms or bad weather. How will this new grid system be able to avoid outages caused by storms, bad weather, or even sudden changes in energy demands?
That's a good question. If we go back to that centralized model again, and think about a very large coal plant, and a major storm comes through and takes down some of the transmission in the lines that leave that plant and go out into the geography around the area, you've got that one point of generation.
Now, we have an interconnected grid. We've got other ways that we can switch the line. We can take plants offline, and we can add plants back in. We can do all sorts of different things there. However, we have a low number of generation points today and of course that's changing very quickly.
So I think what's going to happen is that the grid is going to get much more distributed, and by distributed I mean that there are places today, in Southern California as an example, where there's enough rooftop solar to power the whole circuit as it sits today. Now, it's not very sophisticated or anything else, but it means that somebody that doesn't have a solar system can actually be receiving some of that benefit. So that opens up the whole world of transactive energy systems and opportunities for people to fine-tune and dial into what it is that they want to do.
Let's say you end up putting on a system at a house, and you size it for double your own consumption, you have an option. What do you want to do with that double? You could charge a car, you could put it back on the grid, or you could sell it to a neighbor. There's lots and lots of things that are going to be able to do that, in good weather and in bad weather.
So as we end up with these multitudes of distributed energy systems that are out there, we're going to have the ability to avoid the outages that were in the news quite a bit this year. Because one person might be able to provide enough energy to power a small area.
You mentioned the Smart Grid would be able to identify problems. Is this a form of AI?
If the grid would be able to identify problems, is this a form of AI? The self-identification part?
AI is obviously getting a lot of attention in many industries, and it's been in use in the electric utility industry for a long time. So what AI brings us is the ability to go out and look at what's normal and identify what's not. And that can be in equipment, or for example, it can look at the gases inside a transformer. It can also look at the signal on a line, or it can look at a fault and identify how far away it is and what happened. All sorts of different things.
So a lot of these grid situations that we have today are changing. The grid has been pretty static for let's say, up until 2010. So we had solar, but it was very heavily reliant on rebates and incentives and other things. The economics weren't really there yet.
So we're at this point now where the economics have turned. It's affordable, it's easy to put in, it's accessible to many people, but every time that goes in, it changes the grid. The grid responds differently because we've got different loads, we've got different potential producers and everything else. So AI will play an important part of understanding what those changes look like. What did it look like before I got there? And then, what's it going to look like after we add and change things?
So it's another point in that distributed aspect of the way that the grid is going to look. Today, we pull everything back into a central spot, and we unpack everything and do our analysis there, and then make decisions and send them back. As we go forward, since we're getting rid of these large centralized plants and moving to an environment where we've got thousands, or tens of thousands of Distributed Energy Resources out there, AI is going to be very important in helping us understand what it looked like, what it looks like now and what it's going to look like in the future.
Why do you think Connext DDS is a tailor-made solution for the problems the Energy industry is trying to solve?
So we know that the answer to making all this happen is by using digitalization, utilizing connectivity and real-time visibility with these assets to help optimize them. Where does Connext DDS come into play with all of this?
I think I mentioned a little bit ago that the physical grid is what we see when we drive down the road. We've got the grid that runs from the transmission line to the distribution substation, and then distribution lines run through neighborhoods bringing that power out to everybody's house. And that is a connection. It is a grid. It is interconnected. We have some smarts as we've been through already, but that is really what the physical grid is.
And above that, when we get to this new way of creating energy, generating energy and delivering energy, it's going to take a level of coordination that we don't have today. The grid's going to become autonomous. So rather than having your finger on a dial and saying the plant needs to go up or the plant needs to go down, we're going to have tens of thousands of devices out there that are going to have to take some sort of input and make some sort of decision, and then report some sort of a status back. That doesn't happen on the physical grid and that's going to happen on the digital grid, or the neural grid layer.
So DDS comes into play there because there are no servers, there is no single point of failure. I think as a lot of our listeners probably know, DDS has low-latency and very high throughput. It's routable, it's secure, it's what autonomous systems of systems are built on.
Is digitalization a pretty unanimous opinion among energy experts, executives and people who make these kinds of decisions?
I think it absolutely is. We've touched a little bit already on the physical grid and then the digital grid that lays on top of it. And the two have to really work hand in hand. We can't go into the future having these thousands and thousands, or even millions, or these Distributed Energy Resources, or DER everywhere without having that ability to understand where it is, understand where it's going, and then give it the operating parameters that allow it to be part of an autonomous system.
How are we going to get there? If you ask 100 executives what that answer is, you're going to get a number of different answers. The one thing that's going to be common is everybody does recognize and, this is my opinion, but everybody does recognize that there is a coordination that has to happen.
One last question before you take off, Erik. Why do you think Connext DDS is a tailor-made solution for the problems that the energy industry is trying to solve?
Another great question, and I think one of the big things is people are very cautious today about protecting their investment. So Connext DDS is built on an open standard and what that means is that it's not our technology. We have the RTI Connext DDS iteration of DDS, but it's not the only one. So that investment is safe.
There's a number of other things that are out there, but I think one nice way to summarize it is that DDS is an additive technology. I haven't met a lot of utility executives that say, 'I want to do a rip and replace on a system'. It's expensive, it's risky, it's all of those different things. DDS as an adder, is something that runs in parallel with existing systems if you want it to, and then you can slowly move over to that as a sole source, but it protects what you've already got in the field because we can integrate with anything. It works with the systems that you have today and then it also future proofs your system going into the years ahead of us. That's pretty appealing.
So you said Connext DDS can be added on because it integrates well with other systems. However, I've also heard that Connext DDS works best when things are built on top of it. Is there a way to slowly migrate Connext DDS to that bottom level where things are built on top of it without having to stop production or take a huge year long break to reconfigure your system?
Yes, absolutely. We have customers that are already doing that, where they have added DDS and the databus concept to generation facilities and then started connecting the old devices rather than going in there and replacing them, and it gives them the opportunity to do this over time. So as that process is going on, they also get to take advantage of the security enhancements and the ability to connect other systems. These are the things that we find so appealing, and most of our customers do as well.
Erik, I want to thank you one more time for coming onto the podcast and telling us a little bit about energy. It's been great discussing this with you, and we hope to have you on again soon.