Energy: act now to mitigate risk

Paul Boughton

With its 2014/15 Winter Outlook Report (WOR), the UK’s National Grid has released its annual forecasts for the country’s expected energy supply and demand over the cold winter months.

This year’s findings suggest that Britain will have enough energy to avoid any blackouts this winter. However, the National Grid has warned that electricity margins will be at only 4.1%, a seven-year low, due to planned generator closures and breakdowns as well as the inability to quickly replace these with new plants.

Last winter, a seemingly endless string of storms caused outages in energy networks across the UK and left hundreds of thousands of households and businesses without power. Major weather events such as these have a taxing effect on local grids, contributing to sudden spikes in voltage that can trigger cascading failures across the network. With capacity so limited this year, it’s not hard to imagine extreme winter weather testing the limits of UK networks.

There is of course no way to control weather patterns. That being said, utility companies can help reduce the risk of grid overloads and outages by taking measures to optimise the flow of energy through their networks. With the right technologies in place, energy providers can even scale and dispatch repair efforts more quickly in the event of damages to network assets.

A ‘smart’ solution

The impending roll out of smart meters in the UK will bring utilities exceptional levels of control over the network. By automating network management with new technologies, energy distributors will make the most of the information they collect from across the grid by gaining the ability to adapt their services and operations to shifting network conditions in near real-time. To add to this, instant feedback from widespread network smart meters will allow energy providers to spot warning signs for impending problems before they materialise, and take proactive action to avert some outages entirely.

To add to this, geospatial analytics tools can provide energy distributors with up-to-the-minute visualisations of flow across the grid, allowing them to oversee the status of their network assets as major weather events progress.

It’s all tied together

As dynamic, intricately connected networks, distribution grids present unique engineering and safety challenges that make them particularly complex to manage. Often troubleshooting works carried out at one point of the network may resolve a localised issue, but can redirect flow to other points on the grid and put enough pressure on these areas to cause new problems. If not managed effectively, this ‘moving fault’ can become particularly dangerous during major weather events, which can add to the already great pressure placed on the grid.

Analytics at the heart of it all

For energy utilities, the key to building more responsive networks lies in the data they will collect and analyse from the smart grid. This will include not only consolidating the vast amount of information that next generation grids will provide them, but also quickly converting this into valuable network insight.

With this knowledge, utility distributors can then make more accurate predictions about future energy demand, and even overlay their data with seasonal weather trends from previous years to develop exceptionally well-founded forecasts.

Whether during extreme weather conditions or periods of normal operation, the analysis of smart meters can help utilities take advantage of widespread data points to gain a better vision of how stably electricity is being distributed throughout their networks. This information will enable them to automate network functions and identify signs of flow issues before problems actually occur. 

Automating Network Management

As the smart grid roll-out takes form, utilities will begin collecting and analysing information from a growing number of metering points to better understand how voltage is being distributed throughout their networks. Modern network management systems can help utilities make the most of the information they collect from smart meters by allowing them to automatically adapt demand response to network conditions in near real-time.

With the ability to automatically balance power supply and demand in the grid, utility distributors will be able to tailor their energy strategy to match real-world network behaviour, and open the door to new levels of power efficiency. Once they can redirect flow as required in this way, energy retailers can drastically reduce the risk of localised overloading or outages. This level of control can in turn help them avoid overburdening on-site transformers to the point of failure, and preclude the significant damage to network assets that these malfunctions can cause.

Putting storm response on the map

By outfitting themselves with an advanced geospatial data tool, working in tandem with a big data appliance, utilities can profit from relevant real-time information to improve network performance and gain more focused and responsive system control. 

A major benefit to be gained from embedding a spatial analysis tool in a network management system is vastly improved troubleshooting and risk-assessment capability. Most notably, with the ability to assess the impact of events on their services using a real-time virtual map of their networks, the speed with which utilities can react to damages or potential overloads has increased dramatically.

In the event of a major storm, providers can keep an eye on energy patterns across the board to instantly pinpoint major disruptions and immediately initiate response protocols. In the UK, where sustained heavy rainfall regularly tests water infrastructure, the ability to anticipate danger zones for storm drain overflows or to monitor system performance in overloaded sectors can help utilities limit damages to network assets and keep their services online.

Getting a head start

While there is no way around extreme weather for utility companies, or around dealing with occasional damages during major storms, energy distributors that take measures to develop proactive response strategies fuelled by modern technologies stand to limit the effects of these incidents on their network assets.  

Data analytics appliances, network management applications, and geospatial tools can help energy distributors moderate flow across the grid to react more efficiently to potential hazards, while getting customers more involved in helping them deal with localised damages. Utility companies that make the most of these technologies will be well placed keep their systems running as smoothly as possible during major weather events, and provide energy users with a more stable and responsive service no matter that the weather looks like.

Mike Ballard is Senior Director of Utilities Strategy, Oracle EMEA.

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