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How Can Electricity Grids Benefit from Digital Twin Technology?
More and more companies are turning to “digital twin” technology in the search for value. But what exactly is a digital twin? And how can this technology help power utilities to get the most out of their investments?
An electricity grid is the perfect illustration of a complex system. Grids comprise a large number of elements which although independent, are also highly interconnected. On top of this, grids are dynamic: their topology shifts constantly in response to new sources of generation, congestion and breakdowns.
The rise of smart grids, which allow two-way flows of electricity and data, adds further complexity.
To manage all of this, a complexity simulation tool – a “digital twin” – is needed to better understand the interaction between grid elements and to make better decisions.
All stakeholders involved in the energy transition, including distribution and transmission system operators, are under increasing pressure to prioritise their investments. But deciding where, when and how much to invest is an increasingly complex task.
First, there is the challenge of dealing with new patterns of electricity demand and increasing amounts of renewable generation. All of this adds to stress on existing grid infrastructure.
Second, there is the challenge of accommodating the goals of multiple stakeholders. Regulators, customers, investors, employees and communities all have different needs. All must be carefully balanced.
Ageing assets and a growing emphasis on risk add further layers of complexity.
“ A lot of power networks in developed countries were built in the first half of the 20th century. That means a large proportion of assets are approaching the end of their expected physical life. ”
David MercereauEnergy specialists ENEA Consulting
In parallel with this is the growing emphasis on active risk management. This subject is an area of increasing interest to regulators, investors and the wider community.
“This is not only about supply reliability, but also about safety and reputation. For example, climate change can actually increase risk exposure for a lot of power utilities,” Mercereau points out.
In short, power utilities face a perfect storm of new demands, ageing assets and complex risk management needs. How can utilities prioritise their investments so they deliver the greatest impact – and the greatest value?
Striking the right balance
The first step is identifying the needs of different stakeholders. Investors want a higher return on assets. Customers, meanwhile, want reliable services and power at a reasonable price. Employees and communities place a high value on safety.
“ You have to know what value you want to deliver and what your stakeholders expect from you. In some cases, values are contradictory. So we need to develop a value framework to make values directly comparable with each other. ”
Bram AlkemaAsset Management Professional, Nexans
In complex industrial systems – power grids are an example – physical assets are the primary value (and risk) driver. So the next step is calculating how assets contribute to the values identified.
“If you are able to forecast the performance of your assets, you can invest in new or replacement assets with greater precision – and you can maintain them better,” says Alkema.
To achieve these goals, you need data, good models and simulation technology to predict asset and system performance years into the future. This is where “digital twin” technology comes in.
Enterprise digital twins
In simple terms, a digital twin is a digital version of a real-world asset. The ability to model a single asset has clear value. But what if you could create a model of your whole business and all its assets and interactions? Thanks to the development of enterprise digital twins, this is now possible.
“ Enterprise digital twins are the crème de la crème. You can model your entire organisation, including all your assets, processes, heterogeneous data sources and multiple business constraints – physical, human and financial. ”
Maxime Le PendevenSimulation software specialist, Cosmo Tech
The solution simulates the dynamic evolution of the entire system with real-time operational simulation. This allows utilities to analyse the root cause of problems, identify causalities between different events, weigh up all the risks and then optimise processes and KPIs.
“Asset Electrical takes into account 100% of the utilities’ assets, including their interactions and sub-components, with a highly customisable timescale,” explains Le Pendeven. “And it is the only solution on the market that allows utilities to simulate unlimited what-if scenarios and how-to optimisations – including operational, tactical and strategic decisions.”
In addition to helping utilities to make better decisions, Asset Electrical provides transparency. This is vital for stakeholders, who increasingly expect to see justification for investment decisions.
Data is the key to optimising investments. Utilities today are awash with data and modern assets are increasingly instrumented, making it easier than ever to gather high-quality data in real time. In short, data creates opportunities for utilities. But what about older assets that cannot easily be instrumented?
“Utilities often have assets which can be 50 to 80 years old, so you do not always have comparable data from each asset,” notes Alkema. “But it is still possible to use the model with less granular data to generate solutions.”
Asset Electrical delivers proven benefits for power utilities. These include savings of more than 10% of total expenditure and an increased return on assets of over 20%. “From what we’ve seen, asset management is one of the areas where the highest gains can be achieved with the least effort,” concludes Mercereau.
Of power utilities' total expenditure saved
Of power utilities' return on assets