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Powering the Future: Grid Modernization Efforts in Action

Grid modernization

It’s not breaking news to say that there’s an extraordinary demand for electricity in today’s world, as well as the need for that electricity to be reliable, affordable, and—increasingly—sustainable. What many of us don’t spend much time thinking about, though, is how much work goes on at the back end to make this possible. And, beyond that, how energy requirements can even be a driving force for innovation in the power grid.

Our panel of experts from Intel, Dell Technologies, ABB, and VMware gets into the nuts and bolts of grid modernization. The panel includes: Prithpal Khajuria, Director of Energy and Sustainability at Intel; Anthony Sivesind, Edge Solution Architect at cloud computing company VMware; Jani Valtari, Technology Center Manager at the industrial digitization leader ABB; and Russell Boyer, Global Energy Field Director at technology company Dell Technologies. And they’re all deeply committed to servicing not only the power requirements of today but also the requirements of tomorrow.

What is the current state of the power grid and its recent evolutions?

Prithpal Khajuria: The grid architecture has not changed in a hundred years, but in the last decade we have started shifting towards renewables, where the most important thing is the penetration of renewables at the edge of the grid—in homes, businesses, parking lots. There we have started deploying large-scale renewable energy, mostly solar, and that has started pushing energy back to the grid.

The grid was designed as a one-way highway of electrons moving from utilities to homes and businesses. But this addition of renewables at the edge of the grid has started a two-way flow of electrons. A system was designed to operate one way, but now we have to adapt it to the new scenario. That requires us to rethink the architecture of the grid—how can we add more intelligence technology into it to get better visibility and faster decision-making capabilities going forward?

Anthony Sivesind: I’ll add onto what Prithpal just said. I agree—what once was a one-way power flow is now seeing a great shift; what once wasn’t a problem for utilities now is. And along with the power flow we’re seeing an increase in the penetration of point loads, an increase in the density of loads. Two examples of where we’re seeing that is with data centers and electric vehicles.

That is a challenge for utilities, along with an increase in extreme weather events and physical cyberattacks, all while maintaining this aging grid infrastructure. What VMware wants to do is to help implement a flexible platform so those utilities can improve their capabilities.

Russell Boyer: What the utilities have to do is figure out how to take these various challenges—like weather events and cyberattacks—and add more intelligence, add more operational capabilities to turn that data into insight, and ultimately to improve the reliability and the resiliency of the grid.

Jani Valtari: It’s a tricky challenge. We need to increase the amount of renewable energy; we need to decarbonize the energy sector. At the same time, a bigger part of the society is going to require electrical energy. So we need to be at the same time very flexible, very adaptable to renewable generation, but also more secure than before. And the way to do that is to add more digital technologies. And to do that in an affordable way, we need standardized platforms—scalable solutions that can be widely deployed to many different locations across the globe.

Where are the biggest opportunities for grid modernization?

Prithpal Khajuria: What we have been doing historically is building a model-driven grid, and building it from the top down. But now we need to go bottom up, by building intelligent, data-driven systems at the edge of the grid—which in this case is the substation. So how do we build the intelligent edge and then use it to collect more data, normalize that data, and then extract more intelligence for greater visibility and faster decision-making?

We can address these challenges, and those of meeting ESG goals, by maximizing the use of renewable energy. And the only way we can maximize the utilization of renewable energy is by having greater visibility and insights. That’s what Intel sees—building a data-driven grid going forward.

“Now we need to go bottom up, by building intelligent, #data-driven systems at the #edge of the grid” – Prithpal Khajuria, @intel via @insightdottech

How do you see emerging technologies being used to meet the needs of today?

Russell Boyer: Dell technology has been investing in edge and IoT for several years now, in order to harden our overall compute infrastructure and be able to offer more capabilities out at the edge. So in order to support all of this automation and real-time operational decision-making, we need more capabilities, more compute, out at the edge in the substation. And that’s just to be able to meet the requirements of today.

If you look at sustainability targets, we’re going to have to have a landing place for the AI models of the future. Today we’ve got aging infrastructure in the substation, and we really need to modernize that, and modernize it at scale, so that we can not only meet the current requirements but also those of the future.

In one example, as we start having more virtual power plants, where there’s a significant amount of generation on the distribution side, we’re going to need to improve those operational technologies to better manage that, and to achieve those ESG targets that Prithpal mentioned to make sure we favor those sustainable sources of energy.

Jani Valtari: The traditional way of handling protection control in a substation has been to use devices that you install once, and then you let them run for 10, 15 years and don’t need to touch them. Now we actually need to change the environment on a very frequent scale.

We also need to make our designs more data driven, not just so that we can collect data and get some insights but so we can react fast based on data, even in the millisecond scale. You can run things on a virtual platform and really quickly adapt whenever there’s a need to make a change in the network.

How is Intel tackling grid modernization?

Prithpal Khajuria: Intel is looking at grid modernization from multiple angles. One angle is talking to the end customers—in this case, the utilities—first. What are the challenges they are facing? How can technology help them? One of the biggest challenges we see, which Jani touched on, is the penetration of these fixed-feature function devices; they were designed to do one thing and only one thing. So Intel put together a team to build the next-generation infrastructure to standardize the hardware, and to disconnect the software from the hardware.

Intel provides the core technology, the ingredients, which is our silicon and the associated technologies around it. Then Dell comes with its technologies; its capabilities layer on the top. Then VMware comes with its software-defined infrastructure on the top of that, and then ABB comes with the power-centric technologies on the top of that. That is what the Intel vision is—bringing the whole ecosystem together to build this scalable infrastructure that can accelerate the adoption of technologies in the utility sector to drive the goals that each utility or each country in the world has for maximizing renewables and minimizing fossil fuels.

What is the value of partnerships and coalitions for grid modernization?

Jani Valtari: We’ve been looking towards a software-oriented approach already for two decades—trying to really shift things from hardware-centric to software-centric, and going from model-based towards data-based, from fixed systems to very volatile and fast-changing but still super-reliable systems.

Recently we released the world’s first virtualized protection and control system. But we cannot do this whole thing alone, so it’s been very good to have solid collaboration. For example, we need super-reliable hardware to run the algorithms, so there’s hardware development with Intel and Dell. Also, we are not experts on the virtualization environments, and the collaboration with Anthony and VMware has also been important for us.

Russell Boyer: We’ve got to create a coalition of the willing in order to innovate. Intel has done a great job of bringing together a coalition of various software and hardware vendors, together with clients, to really put together a standard—we’ve got to influence the standards.

The other thing is we’ve got to have the collaboration with all different types of partners. As we move forward, we want to make sure that we have a whole portfolio of options to be able to support these modern platforms at the edge.

Anthony Sivesind: And not just with the partners here either but also with the utilities—I want to tip my hat to Intel for engaging all the utilities. Intel has spurred the industry with a couple of coalitions in that realm: E4S in Europe, the vPAC Alliance in America. And that’s a great chance to build those standard specifications that Russell mentioned.

Tell us more about the importance of those industry standards.

Jani Valtari: In order to go in the direction where a solution is scalable and can be widely used in different places, we need to do everything based on global standards. In the power sector the key standard is IEC 61850. It has standardized items related to hardware; it has standardized items related to software, related to communication, related to many different protocols and aspects. When we put that as our center point, we are in a good position to create solutions that can be very widely used.

Can you expand on the grid modernization ecosystem?

Prithpal Khajuria: The Intel strategy is to make the customer—the utility—part of the journey from day one. Because at the end of the day, the customer has the problems, and they want to buy the solutions for those problems. So we get them engaged, and then we bring in a best-of-the-breed ecosystem with their capabilities in each area. ABB—more than a hundred years of experience in the power industry. Look at VMware—invented virtualization technology. Dell—the lead hardware-solution provider in software components.

And Anthony touched on the fact that we have created two industry alliances focused purely on the power industry: the E4S Alliance, focused on digitalization of secondary substations, where the customers and utilities engage with each other. And the vPAC Alliance, which is focused on virtualization of automation and control in the substations.

So that has been the vision of Intel: Bring everybody together, accelerate the adoption of the technology, and deliver the benefits to the utilities and their customers.

Any final thoughts or key takeaways when it comes to grid modernization?

Jani Valtari: One key message is that technology is ready for very rapid grid modernization, and at ABB we’ll be really happy to engage with our customers on the best way to take them there.

Anthony Sivesind: I’ll echo that: We’re ready now. We have the technology, and VMware is also ready to help utilities in any way that it can to train them and bring their teams together.

Russell Boyer: If we’re going to achieve these ESG targets, we really have to accelerate the deployment of new technology. And Dell is committed to developing the latest technology to make that happen.

Prithpal Khajuria: My message is to the utilities: Let’s put a migration plan together. We can walk you through the journey of a pilot or proof of concept, to a field pilot, to a deployment. That migration plan needs to be stitched together, and Intel and its ecosystem partners are here to help.

Related Content

To learn more about efforts to modernize the grid, read Smart Grid Modernization to Power a Decarbonized Economy and listen to The Driving Forces Behind Grid Modernization. For the latest innovations from these companies, follow them on LinkedIn at: ABB, Dell Technologies, Intel Internet of Things, and VMware.

This article was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.

About the Author

Christina Cardoza is an Editorial Director for Previously, she was the News Editor of the software development magazine SD Times and IT operations online publication ITOps Times. She received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Stony Brook University, and has been writing about software development and technology throughout her entire career.

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