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What Covid-19 has taught us about running the electrical distribution grid

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Anja Langer Jacquin, chief commercial officer of depsys, looks at the lessons that the pandemic has taught us so far for running distribution grids both during lockdown, in the short-term aftermath, and for the long-term future.

COVID-19 has been a seismic event in so many areas of society, and power distribution grids are no exception.

At the height of the virus, societies have been eerily quiet in terms of economic activity. Factories went dormant, shops shuttered, and offices remained empty as people stayed home to stop the spread. As you would expect, this had implications for distribution system operators (DSOs) needing to find a new balance of electricity, production, and consumption – but the most serious threats weren’t necessarily the most obvious ones.

Yes: loads on the grid changed, forcing DSOs to adapt. They were quite easily able to though. The challenge was new areas of increased demand such as temporary hospitals and other critical locations. Grids weren’t planned with these in mind, and DSOs had to keep supply constant and at high quality. However, DSOs often had to rely on old analogue assets that generated no performance data – to ensure they were up to scratch meant manual inspection.

Which brings us to the bigger but less obvious challenge: people. For a long time, the utility sector has depended on the accumulated knowledge and experience of an aging workforce. However, the virus required DSOs to minimise employees in control centres and engineers in the field – especially given increased risk for older workers. There is not a lot of spare capacity in the typical DSO workforce, and perhaps the biggest threat to grid stability was that too many key personnel were removed from the workforce during lockdown. As such, the inability to monitor and control assets remotely emerged as a major pandemic risk.

Re-opening and re-emerging

During the period of the first wave and the second wave, DSOs were given a narrow window of time in which to both recover and prepare for further turmoil. At the time they asked themselves some key questions:

  • What went well and what could have gone better?
  • What can we do/put in place to be better prepared for future crises?
  • Which new practices and processes have emerged that we should have been doing anyway?

The answers will vary for each DSO, but we can make one high level observation. Broadly, there are two ways to prepare for a potential second wave or another crisis. One is traditional grid reinforcement: based on observations from the pandemic, utilities can upgrade transformers, add new cables etc. The problem is, this is a long and expensive approach to take precisely when time and money may be in short supply.

The second approach is digital. Greater real-time insight and control over grid performance enables DSOs to better respond to future difficulties and more intelligently plan inve stments. Compared to physical upgrades, digital investments can be transformative in a very short time and for a typically lower cost.

Looking ahead to the long-term

Second wave or not, eventually the pandemic will pass. The challenge then is to figure out what such a seismic event means for the future of distribution networks.

One possible effect is that there will be less public funding available, with governments indebted due to their responses to the pandemic. This may end the traditional ‘better safe than sorry’ approach of investing in expensive physical infrastructure upgrades when networks reach capacity.

In the future, tighter budgets may mean greater emphasis on sweating assets and only making large physical investments when absolutely necessary. To do that, DSOs need greater insight into grid performance at a granular level, which means digitalisation and the collection of real, hard data.

Though digitalisation itself requires investment, it is orders of magnitude less than physical infrastructure and can give DSOs confidence that they are getting the most out of every pound and euro.

Digitalisation also enables more remote working, which doesn’t just protect people during the pandemic, but saves money and satisfies what may turn out to be a widespread shift to more remote working across societies after the pandemic.

At the same time, Covid-19 could change how people think about energy entirely. Governments are pushing for smart solutions to ensure we re-power up the economy based on sustainable energy solutions. We may see more microgrids and distributed resources as a response. DSOs will be called upon to invest to adapt, and digitalisation will give them the insight to de-risk those investments and increase return.

The trend towards smart grids was already well underway, but the pandemic has underlined both the wisdom and urgency of that evolution. The enduring lesson of the pandemic for DSOs is that fast, smart and efficient decisions depend on deep, broad and accurate data.

This article originally appeared in Electrical Review January/February 2021.

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