100% renewable power grids will require full digitalization – an interview with Ralf Blumenthal, Siemens

Written by
25 May 2023
100% renewable power grids will require full digitalization – an interview with Ralf Blumenthal, Siemens

Engineer says grid software, “that makes the cake bigger of what you can see in grids – and therefore manage – is definitely the next big thing.” He gives an inside look at the energy transition, describing how software is enhancing existing technology to push grids to higher capacity, anticipating a rapid increase of power demand for new industries and a gradual but growing AI role.

Ralf Blumenthal is Head of Grid Software Middle East, Siemens. He discusses his company’s work in several countries.

Energy & Utilities  We want to discuss the topic of smart grids, and the transformation of energy grids to cope with the energy transition.

Ralf Blumenthal  It’s something that all Middle East countries are going through at the moment, all strategies are shifting toward heavy renewable power build-up over the next decade or two, so the grid needs to transform to cope with that.

E&U  And it is remarkable because regional utilities, in some cases, for example that of Abu Dhabi, are already reaching very high shares of carbon-free power in their systems, during certain periods, and may well reach 100% by 2030.   

What general trends are you seeing across the region?

RB  The specifics of the countries vary, of course, but what all of them have in common is a strong renewable energy expansion strategy: going to over-production of renewable energy to have enough power for green hydrogen production and export of green energy. For example, Egypt wants to sell green energy to Europe and intensify connections to other MEA countries.

And I see this everywhere. Oman is planning to connect to India. Oman, UAE, KSA, all have aggressive green hydrogen strategies. This proves that the energy transition in Middle East is in full swing, and this significant increase and even overproduction of renewable power comes with very different dynamics of what grids need to cope with to maintain stability.

So if you move up one level of abstraction, these challenges are the same across the region.

What varies is how far each country has come. Some, like the UAE, are quite advanced in integrating renewable power. But to have 100% renewable power 24/7 is a huge challenge. It’s something that has never been done anywhere at country scale.

The biggest example I’m aware of is Hawaii, which is an autonomous 100% renewable grid. It works. But of course, for a country like Saudi Arabia we’re talking a different scale.

NEOM is likely to be one of the first megacities to operate a 100% renewable power grid, but I would say Dubai and the rest of the UAE are not far off.

We strongly support that it is possible to operate 100% renewable grids. There are experts in the global community who put that at doubt, saying there has to be a certain inertia in the grid to stabilize it, as is currently the case with fossil power generation. Or worries from public opinion who fear energy shortage subject to unfavourable weather phenomena.

Of course, humanity is used to operating grids the way we have done over the past decades. But we know that it is possible to run 100% renewable power grids if the right measures and control mechanisms are in place.

And that’s where – the topic dear to me – software comes into play. Without full digitalization of our power grids, we’re not going to get anywhere. But with the right software it’s achievable.

So it’s not a matter of technology not being able to cope with the energy transition. It’s a matter of implementing and incorporating technology that already exists. And that’s part of the transition that’s currently happening.

E&U  We know what needs to be done but are utilities ready?  Because if 100% renewable + nuclear power was to come onto grids right now, they would not be ready. 

RB  Obviously it’s a transformation of the industry, actually a revolution because the principles behind the operations of a utility company are changing fundamentally. The technology is one part. Another major challenge is to prepare staffs to cope with new technology, to feel comfortable in operating the new technology.

It’s not just software. It’s entire processes and organizations that need to be adapted. It’s really about flipping the switch in the utility industry, because we’re moving away from thinking in years and decades, say, to very short-term cycles. With a high content of renewable generation in the grid, you need to cope with high volatility and fluctuations. The level of resilience we need to adapt to affects almost everything a utility does and needs to do.

To give an example, in usual planning cycles on a year or half-year basis, the engineers would compute a worst-case scenario for winter and summer, based on  when the expansion of the grid would occur. This is fine with a stable base load and generation capacities and consumer loads which are well known.

Now we have more renewables, and changing behaviour on the user side, for example we are seeing a large increase in E-mobility. So we have high loads concentrated at times of day that didn’t exist before. But that’s just a start.

If we look ahead, we’re facing a tremendous transformation of industry with more electrification. When this happens we will have much higher levels of electricity consumption, and in different patterns, as different processes and elements of daily life, residential, commercial, and industrial, will be requiring gird operators to cope with new conditions. Green hydrogen is another strong driver.

Planners cannot plan ahead based on one worst-case scenario for winter and summer, but actually have to include shifting load at different times of day in different times of year, so they have to go to hourly worst case scenarios that could occur throughout a year.

The amount of planning and the amount of resources and computational capabilities increases significantly. You need more automation, you have to have more data available, and you need to integrate different data sources.

It’s not enough anymore to base planning on static data sources, which have been engineered to represent a certain case.

E&U  The changing power mix is forcing utilities to find new ways to create stability, inertia, and so forth. How is grid software adapting to ensure system stability?

RB  Software comes into play in controlling all of that, making sure all the different elements play together. You can imagine it to be the brain that needs to cope with many more parts of the body than it had to in the past. Powerful software becomes more important than ever.

E&U  What major factors are you thinking about, as you think about the new grids emerging?

RB  I’m also looking at it from a purely economic point of view. The traditional way of expanding grids is to anticipate growth and to invest into more substations, more cables, etc. However, the question is: Is it always necessary to increase the physical capacity of grids?

On average, yes, because we need to transport more energy as loads increase over time. But which other ways can we find to speed up the expansion of our grids? Must we always rely on a traditional approach or can we in parallel find other means to better utilize what is already there? How can we optimize utilities’ investments because we can find smart connections, and ways to operate a network that make more use of the existing system and perhaps push it further to its limits.

Because of course, with any grid design there are a lot of safety factors which are there for a good reason, but now with more technology and digitalization there is better visibility into different states of the network, weather conditions, load forecasts, etc.

So there are ways now to use software to push the capabilities of the grid to a higher level, without increasing risk. Simply because you know it is safe to operate at higher capacity.

And from an economic point of view, this is a good return on invest. Software projects typically have shorter implementation time, with lower investment size, than for hardware that needs to be rolled out across a large area.

E&U  Could an energy transition begin now with advanced software, even before new non-carbon power sources are built up?  

RB  The software in our business unit focuses entirely on the grid. That being said, there is software to make existing generation processes more efficient. But in the end it’s a physical process, so unless the fuel for a turbine is changed to something green, it will cause emissions. So no single ingredient can make the transformation by itself.

However, I am re-emphasizing that software is a very important element. When more renewables, and storage capabilities, and EV chargers and other distributed energy resources, when all of that increases and comes into play, in different times, in existing grids, in infrastructure that can be 40-plus years old, we see that it will not work without software.

E&U  What projects are you working on that illustrate these challenges?

RB  Dubai, and the UAE, are doing great work in terms of pushing toward the country’s vision. DEWA in particular is a frontrunner.

We have supported them with planning, maintenance and operational software. It’s really in that combination of different software and interconnected data sources being used in different domains, that we can optimize for lower technical losses while coping with the changes in the grid.

So on the path to COP28 this year, DEWA and Siemens have an important partnership.

Another example is in Egypt. It’s really a powerhouse with huge power demands and very large generation capacities that are being augmented by more renewables. They’re on the way to exporting green energy to Europe and other countries.

We’ve recently had important agreements for new distribution control centres that came along with smart metering, and with distribution planning software to enable a more efficient operation of the grid, lowering technical losses, increasing efficiency, to future-proof the energy transition in Egypt.

Perhaps another example is Qatar, where our software takes in millions of data points from smart meters. We’re currently building with them the next level of analysis that is now possible by looking at very granular consumption patterns. In order to further optimize their investments in grid expansion and efficiency.

All three examples point in the same direction. We also have a strong footprint in Pakistan, where the challenges of the gird on a day-to-day basis are quite different, but again it’s all about how Pakistan’s grids are transforming, how the digitalization of distribution is going to contribute in a positive way.

The actual importance of grids is changing with the energy transition. Grids used to be a mere necessity to transport power from large generation units into the market, but we’re now seeing that the importance of having an efficient grid, a reliable grid, is increasing.

We have so many examples across the world in which the expansion of renewables is slowed down or not occurring because the grid is not ready for it. We have situations of large power outages which affect the perception of the energy transition.

All of this has put increased focus on grids. Grid Operation is the key element to make the energy transition happen.

E&U  When you’re looking at a grid anywhere, to digitize a grid, what is the most important piece of the technology? Is it the smart meter?

RB  The more data points that can be gathered into the systems, the better, and smart meters definitely play an important role. Because they give insights into energy consumption down to the lowest part of the grid.

But other sensors are added, many kinds of connection points in the field that can be monitored, protection relays, weather sensors. Anything that can give intelligence on the state of the grid from as asset point of view, a consumption point of view, also weather and other external factors, the more the better.

E&U  In the actual control room, what key technologies are required?

RB  It’s shifting more and more towards an IT business, because as the amount of data increases, and as the amount of different data sources that are being integrated increases, so do the computational capabilities to store that data, to handle it and aggregate it, to forecast or perform other mathematical operations on it –  and to secure it.

So we see with more and more utilities that the role of an IT department is dramatically increasing in importance. Now IT is significantly catching up to the OT side. Utilities are now bringing in IT heads, which are dealing directly with how to cope with the need for software to manage more data, as well as security of operations. We shouldn’t forget this is critical infrastructure. With increasing digitalization, the need increases for security, and awareness of vulnerabilities.

E&U  What is your main software in control centres?

RB  It’s one of our core technologies, a product line called Spectrum Power, our grid control business line. Underneath we have multiple applications, base SCADA, outage management systems, network analysis tools, forecasting algorithms, integration pieces with other software, the list goes on.

As I mentioned, the number of data that needs to be handled increases, and that has an impact on the software itself. It needs to be modular. The utility of the future can’t afford to have one monolithic software block that does everything.

It has to be modular and interoperable, because utilities will need to combine software from different vendors that specialize in different areas, and they have to be interoperable.

It has to be secure by default. And I think a new element traditionally underestimated is the dimension of software needing to be intuitive, especially with a younger generation of engineers and technicians coming in. We heavily invest into making our software more user friendly and fun to work with.

E&U  Is artificial intelligence part of your concern?

RB  I would call it an opportunity. It is a suite of technology that we are carefully evaluating and are implementing in selected use cases.

Let me be clear about it. As this is critical infrastructure, and not a tech consumer business, we need to be careful about how much AI can be implemented in a safe, controllable way.

We see AI use cases for operator support, for better forecasting, object recognition, state estimation. We see it better explaining and forecasting dynamics in certain parts of grids.

So it is happening, but it’s different from the image currently being created around AI in, for example, ‘ChatGPT’ or other consumer environments.

Because error must not happen in critical infrastructure, the entry of AI is necessarily somewhat slower in the utility space than elsewhere. However it is coming, and it will contribute to transforming the business quite substantially over the next 10-20 years.

E&U  Do you see the engineer and the IT professional, the software engineer and electrical engineer, being co-equal in running the control centre of the future?

RB  Definitely.

E&U  And AI will support them?

RB  Yes, because it can help the operator. The operator in the control centre gets tons of notifications of what’s happening in the grid. AI can be applied to help determine what messages from the grid are relevant, and how to react. It can provide a prioritized list of notifications with actionable options based on what has successfully worked in the past.

That way you can shorten reaction times of control centre operations and also dispatch of maintenance crews or whatever is needed to resolve a fault in the system.

E&U  What is your biggest concern now for reliability and stability of grids? Is it the coming of more and more EVs?

RB  The biggest challenge I see is the significant increase in power demand now and over the coming years. Currently it may be driven by EVs. But when a real transformation of industry happens, and when green hydrogen production reaches a noteworthy level in Middle East, that’s when we’ll see multiplying of electricity consumption.

This will be a huge challenge, which we need to start coping with immediately. It’s something that may happen over the next 5-10 years. As mentioned before, building resilience to cope with the energy transition affects all domains of the grid and grid operators.

E&U  What kind of innovation in software needs to be happening now?

RB  I thinks it’s in how to help us cope with the new generation demand and capabilities. Not just individual wind farms, but from small scale to large scale. For the addition of renewables to the grid, we need software to optimize the flow and integration. And we need software to cope with getting much more visibility into grids than we have right now. I’m speaking of the entire low voltage side, which is a huge area, that typically is not taken into account in operational decisions.

Any technology that makes the cake bigger of what you can see in grids – and therefore manage – is definitely the next big thing. We are working intensively on this area, stay tuned for upcoming releases next month!

E&U  Have you been involved in countries in the region that have power shortfalls, such as Lebanon?

RB  We are involved in smart metering projects, also in control centre projects, and in micro grid projects. Especially for countries such as Lebanon, we see a big need for decentralized, isolated networks. Simply because it’s difficult to rely on a centralized grid at the moment.

We are supporting initiatives to design microgrids. We have experts who can provide advisory on designing such microgrids and bringing the required players together to make them work, combining generation capacity, storage, grid connection, and control.

E&U  How do you define a microgrid?

RB  Generally, it’s running a network in an island mode. A typical microgrid can be a campus, an industrial area, an island, a community. It’s an autonomous grid, with generation capacities and users, optimally it should be green so that it can achieve a low cost of KWh generation without causing emissions. 

E&U  Can microgrids really do what a main grid can do, in a country like Lebanon? Will they be connected or independent of main grids? And how can they be maintained?

RB  There are obvious advantages of microgrids where there is either an unreliable centralized grid, or a very expensive and inefficient centralized grid, or there is a situation where there is too high cost to connect all parts of a country together.

For such cases, there are many successful examples in different parts of the world, where microgrids have proven to be the best solution. From both economic and environmental perspectives.

If well maintained, well set-up and controlled, microgrids can provide very cost-effective reliable power.

On the other hand, in many parts of the Middle East, we have very efficient centralized grids, and in such situations I doubt whether microgrids are an answer to accelerating the energy transition.

For example, the UAE has one of the most reliable grids in the world, with less than a minute of outage time, per person, per year. And it’s one of the most cost-effective grids in the world. In such cases a “second” infrastructure of microgrids may not be as valuable.

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