The ongoing coronavirus crisis has underscored our deep dependence on digitization and modern technologies. Under the COVID-19 lockdown, smart technologies have enabled us to continue to work, learn and shop from the safety of our home. The coronavirus pandemic changed consumers’ energy profiles overnight and amplified the importance of continuous, uninterrupted electric supply for essential services and for nearly every business sector to keep running.
The utilities sector is still on the periphery of digitization that has disrupted other sectors, such as telecommunications and banking. Utilities have historically under-invested in information technology (IT), focusing instead on the operations technologies that enable their core business of generating, transmitting and distributing power.
The change has been slow in coming, but utilities are now waking up to consumers' demand for smart, interactive services. Along the way, they are identifying many potential benefits of smart technology, not just to the increasingly sophisticated customer, but to their own business. Enter: the smart grid.
While there is much progress still to be made until smart grids and utilities reach their potential across the MENA region, the opportunity is just as large.
Investment on the up
Investment in smart grids is rising globally, spurred by an increasing acknowledgement amongst utilities of smart grid benefits, along with government mandates for energy efficiency and grid reliability. According to market research and consultancy firm, Navigant Research, smart grid IT software and services are expected to generate US$17.1 billion in revenue in 2024 up from US$8.5 billion a decade earlier. With rising investments in the field, several fundamental smart grid building blocks stand to gain. Here, the key focus areas include transmission upgrades, substation automation, distribution automation, smart metering and utility enterprise IT.
The increased investment in smart technologies is enabling the smart grid to evolve and advance. Emerging innovations are promising to benefit consumers, utilities and countries world-wide. Some of these innovations include micro grids, energy storage devices such as Li-Ion batteries, smart homes that adjust consumption according to utility rates, Demand Response (DR) Management Systems that predict peak usage times and mitigate outages and Electric Vehicle (EV) Charging Stations. These technological innovations are just one sign that commitment to the smart grid is growing stronger, as its role in satisfying and engaging customers becomes more apparent.
While the true impact of emerging smart grid trends remains to be seen, existing innovations are already delivering tangible and wide-ranging benefits, not just to consumers and companies, but to entire nations, too.
Smart grids provide a wide range of automation features, differentiating them from traditional grids; these features are vital for business continuity.
In view of social distancing requirements currently in place to protect public health, Remote Firmware Upgrade allows a utility company to push firmware patches and revisions to clients without the need to mobilize Operation and Maintenance (O&M) personnel. Remote reading, connection and disconnection can all be conducted with an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) minimizing the need for field personnel to be deployed.
Moreover, AMI can be easily integrated with other Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and billing solutions to streamline entire meter-to-cash processes and reduce client visits to a service centre. When customers change their daily routines, to work from home for instance, they can evaluate the impact of their new behaviour on their utility bills and make appropriate changes. The smart grid arms today’s consumers with a wealth of information, allowing them to stay informed of their consumption and to explore and compare pricing plans and options to buy and sell. Furthermore, a utility company’s Meter Data Management (MDM) solution provides the company with analytical tools to analyse these evolving patterns and to improve network planning in response.
Smart grids’ Demand Response techniques such as real-time pricing can enable utilities to limit/manage customers’ consumption to account for distribution shortages or emergencies. As consumers’ energy profiles change leading to a shift in demand patterns geographically (e.g., closure of an industrial zone, shutdown of a shopping area), Distribution Automation technologies allow a utility company to monitor and analyse these demand variations and devise and execute appropriate distribution changes in response.
The unparalleled integration provided by the smart grid facilitates critical connectivity between intelligence and asset management applications, increasing operational efficiency across the grid. Meanwhile, integration provides different power generation types, both continuous and intermittent. The smart grid also introduces new storage options, such as fuel cells, and paves the way for greater integration of alternative and intermittent energy sources, including wind and solar energy. Distributed generation enabled by the smart grid benefits existing, mature electricity markets, while also developing new ones.
While there are challenges associated with smart grid design, implementation and deployment, the paradigm shift that is underway also heralds the arrival of complex technical challenges, with cybersecurity prime amongst them. Deploying a smart grid without adequate security could result in serious consequences such as utility fraud, loss of user information and grid instability. The smart grid’s complexity and multiple entry points—from smart meters to distributed energy resources (DER)—create significant vulnerabilities that leave the grid open to breaches and attacks that can target customer data and inflict damage. The implementation of system-wide cyber security that stretches to end-user devices, is a crucial first step in combating the challenge.
Big data and analytics also have a critical role to play in enabling the value of smart grids, yet they, too, present new and growing challenges to utilities with smart grid ambitions. The sheer size of the smart grid means that handling and processing the vast amount of data generated is problematic.
Converting this deluge of information into meaningful intelligence requires a complete overhaul of IT and analytics infrastructure. The information now at utilities’ fingertips poses a challenge not just for data management, but for communications systems, too. Where different vendors and service providers work independently, it is crucial that utilities develop interoperable systems with capacity to exchange large amounts of data between multiple systems.
The Way Forward
Large utilities across the MENA region can build on existing global knowledge and experience to accelerate their own smart grid initiatives, for the benefit of all stakeholders. At the regional level, particularly for the GCC countries, the smart grid is in sync with national missions to increase energy generation from renewable sources such as solar and provides the opportunity to diversify economies away from non-renewables.
Smart grids are the future of utilities. Indeed, it is no longer a matter of if, but when, they begin to roll out smart grid infrastructure, irreversibly changing the utilities landscape as they go. To reap the rewards, each utility must draw up its own path and carefully consider objectives, situation, capabilities and risk appetite, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. While needs and circumstances may vary, utilities face one common reality: the smart grid rewards are bigger than ever for those who plan diligently and who stay plugged-in and switched-on to the smart evolution now shaping our world.