A combination between intelligent data capture and data insights allows businesses to make quicker business decisions that they can execute on, meaning digital solutions can pave the way to greater energy efficiency in less time. As the delegates at COP26 moved into energy day, Connected Energy Solutions spoke to Anja Langer Jacquin, Chief Commercial Officer at depsys about the role of smart grid solutions in the energy transition.

Connected Energy Solutions: If we could start by you telling us about yourself?

Anja Langer Jacquin: I am the Chief Commercial Officer of depsys and look after everything that is market facing. I have been with depsys for two years, but I did not come from the energy sector, I spent most of my career in tech companies focused on IT and network data.

I spent 15 years at Cisco, and I worked independently for four or five years, assisting various companies in their digital transformation. I have had the opportunity to work with several industry sectors on the digitalisation journey; leveraging technology to be more competitive as a business and making sure that you can continue to differentiate and run a healthy business.

CES: With your experience in other sectors where would you put grid companies on their digital transformation journey?

ALJ: With the utilities that we serve now at depsys, they are behind the curve compared to most other industries that have gone further in their digitalisation journey. It is quite interesting to see the parallels with industries like telecoms for example, that are probably ten years ahead of utilities, dealing with similar network challenges

CES: What can you say about the grid operators and the current state of the market in their preparedness?

ALJ: They have not had to digitalise or make changes necessarily, because the core mission of a grid operator is to ensure stable provisioning of quality electricity to everyone at all endpoints. It is a sector that has been set up with a remit to say, ‘do not rock the boat if you do not have to’. Because it is a utility, they must make sure that it always works, and if it does do not touch it. That is currently going against them in terms of infrastructure, processes, and culture mindset, to be able to now suddenly deal with a very changing world.

One of the things that we see with the whole electricity grid is that it just not very sexy. There is so much talk going on about smart grids, exciting initiatives, start-ups, and large companies that are building out innovation centres and spin offs, and everyone’s into battery storage, or next generation PV, but the fact is for that, for all of that to function, it must work on an infrastructure that can handle it. It is not very attractive to think about, because it’s the utility aspect, but ultimately, that is where the bottleneck is.

One of the things that we would like to draw attention to is that we must make sure the underlying infrastructure works, and the way in which it is run is sufficiently agile and flexible, in an industry that has been set up to not be agile and flexible to not rock the boat. If you acknowledge that we need to combat climate change, and make sure that we try to tackle our temperature rise, we need to electrify heating and transport, which means that we are going to get into a massive increase in demand on electricity networks.

Our view on this is that the grid operators have two choices. They could, in theory, continue to do what they have always been doing, which is reinforcement. It is about giving them visibility, so that they know how much the grid can handle, and they can be much more active in managing instead of reinforcing.

CES: By gaining this greater visibility, will it enable them to get more out of existing systems?

ALJ: That is exactly the point. They get much better asset utilisation. What happens today is that they do not know the actual loading of their assets. We see two different ways for them to tackle this today. In some countries like Switzerland that are not that liberalised yet, the grid operator can push back on a big PV installation request. For example, a supermarket might want to cover their rooftop with solar panels. The grid operator, in some cases, may ask for the project to be downsized to take less risk that their grid can’t handle it. As a result, they are in reality slowing down rather than accelerating the energy transition.

In other countries that are more liberalised, the grid operators use a very unattractive pricing strategy, which means it is highly uneconomical to reinject any sort of production that you do not use. That would make the economic case for the supermarket less attractive. If the grid operators knew how much they can handle, they can optimise their asset utilisation . They could even proactively partner with cities to negotiate which locations there should be incentives to install more renewable capacity. Now you can accelerate the energy transition even further.

Our solution is called GridEye, and it is a mix between the physical hardware that you install for the sensors and the processing of the measurements. Then there is a software component that analyses and interprets the data, delivered through a web-based user interface. Our estimates are that for each GridEye device installed , we unlock between five and 30 kilowatts of capacity in the grid.

CES: Is GridEye a local solution, or is it a centralised solution that picks up whole networks?

ALJ: It is installed on a distribution grid. Typically, the first place it is installed is at the medium voltage to low voltage transformer substations, and then some will also be installed in street cabinets if you want to for example monitor a neighbourhood in a city. The solution is both decentralised and centralised. It performs decentralised analytics, based on edge computing, which means that the equipment is sufficiently intelligent to run algorithms locally, and to only send back data that is truly relevant.

It’s a matter of having the intelligence to be able to process locally and optimise the analysis at the edge without having to centralise unprocessed and potentially insignificant data, which is both costly and complex. Instead, the processed GridEye data is only transmitted and combined for additional analytics purposes in a central management system t. If you install in key locations where you might have issues or be concerned that you are going to run into congestion or power quality problems overtime, it will give you a picture of your grid in that environment. You do not need to install it at every point either, the intelligence of the algorithms means that you do not need the topology of the grid to be able to run the solution.

CES: How much intelligence is there at the edge? Can it make decisions, or is it purely analytics?

ALJ: It can do both to a certain degree. The main use case is the gathering of data, the collection and analysis of electrical measurements on the grid, sending back the data that is relevant, and allowing the user and interface to run statistics and do further analytics. It is also capable of sending set points to other equipment to control them. So, for example, with GridEye installed, it is possible to play with the active and reactive power flows to optimise the rendering of the solar panel installation, and the GridEye device will then send set points to the inverter for it to act.

CES: With increasing levels of renewable energy the grid is going to be more complicated. Does the system assist in this complexity?

ALJ: The production consumption equation needs to remain in balance. It is not like in a data network, where you can choose to send all your IP packets to one place and keep the rest empty. Electrons will go wherever they can go, so production consumption needs to be balanced, because otherwise your voltage becomes out of bounds, and then all your electrical equipment will break down. It really is crucial to be able to sufficiently predict how much is likely to be produced at any moment in time, and how much is likely to be consumed.

Then you have people that are buying batteries and have them at home, the grid operators rarely know that there is a battery at home, and that any extra PV capacity is going to be either stored in the battery locally or injected back into the grid. Trying to predict all this so they can constantly provide quality electricity to everyone is a big challenge.

Throwing another extra challenge in: we really are seeing a generational shift, at least in Western Europe, both in terms of the assets, with around 50 per cent of the assets soon over 40 years old, and in terms of workforce with often 40% of operational teams retiring in the coming years.

CES: The future is about understanding that and using these data points that are out there and getting value from them.

ALJ: The answer is data and software. The problem with hardware is that it is outdated, and what you need to have is smart hardware with embedded intelligence, or at least strong firmware, that means that you can continue to update.

I come from the IT side. If I look at Cisco, we know it started with clever hardware functionality, and then moved to software on the hardware, and that is what gets updated. No one can anticipate what the use cases of tomorrow are going to be. You cannot go out and change your physical hardware every year. It is not economical, and it is not operationally viable, you need to be able to steer it with software that can be updated as you go along.

CES: Can you tell me what depsys brings to the table in this energy transition?

ALJ: Our belief is that without a solution like GridEye, the grid operators will not be able to deal with the requirements on them for executing on the energy transition. They need to handle extra electrification and influx of renewables. It is only by having a combination between intelligent data capture and data insights, tallowing them to make more simple, quicker business decisions, that they can execute on.

It is about helping make it as simple as possible for them in terms of the operational decisions that they must take. There are lots of start-ups that are analysing data to help the grid operators better understand, but the problem is that if you are relying on unreliable data to do your analysis, then it is rubbish. Your starting point has got to be the collection of reliable real time data, and then derive those insights that help the grid operators make it simpler, rather than more complicated for them.

CES: Is the industry ready for your solutions?

ALJ: We see a very clear correlation between willingness to digitalise through solutions like ours, and the professional experience of the senior management in the distribution grid operators. Those that have hired in executives from other industries are moving much faster than the ones that only have senior management that have come up through the ranks over the past 30 years in the same industry.

What we are seeing as well is that there are few external factors to this industry that are also making it complicated, mainly due to the fact that we are talking about public sector regulated markets.

CES: What are you expecting or hoping from COP26?

ALJ: What I would really like to see is us move from acceptance to concrete action; I know that is what many people are saying. I would much rather see conclusions at a lower level. Something actionable that everyone can understand how they can play their part in. I personally believe the whole thing is very difficult for people to translate in terms of what does this mean for me.

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