Distribution system operators are facing a perfect storm of challenges, including integration of renewables and distributed energy resources, energy production and consumption volatility and the ever-more- urgent drive towards decarbonisation. Grids are already under unprecedented strain due to the rapid influx of renewable energy, and as net zero targets for energy generation draw closer, this is only going to intensify.

The United States government has set out a target of 80% renewable power generation by 2030 and 100% carbon-free electricity five years later. Meanwhile, the EU recently raised its binding renewable energy target for 2030 to a minimum of 42.5%, up from the previous 32%, and included industry in the Renewable Energy Directive, which is set to lead to a massive scaling-up of renewable energy across power generation, industry, buildings and transport.

But it’s not just businesses that are changing the way they produce and consume energy. Today, anyone, industrial or residential, can be a power producer. More consumers are embracing renewable energy sources such as PV panels to both reduce their carbon footprint and cut energy costs at home, as well as linking up more elements of their lives to the grid, from electric vehicles to heat pumps.

As more renewables enter the grid, electrical distribution infrastructure is undergoing a massive – and rapid – transformation. We are no longer working with a centralised power plant generating electricity 24-7, which means we must think about managing and balancing the network in a different way.

Out of this increasingly complex situation comes the need for invention. Digital technologies, such as sensors linked to sophisticated monitoring and analytics software, have become a must for the DSOs responsible for distributing energy from a wider range of sources to homes and businesses.

By providing real-time information on how assets are performing, these digital tools play an important role in keeping the grid functioning and maintaining continuity of supply, even while the existing system is being stretched to its limits.

Making the switch to digitalisation

The first step for DSOs is to consider upgrading their hardware, such as switchgear, which is a critical enabling factor for the energy transition as it can allow remote monitoring and control of the grid.

With additional digital capabilities, the ability to feed data into analytics software gives DSOs a clear picture of how their assets are performing across the network. This allows them to make better decisions as to how to manage and maintain them, ensuring greener energy is transported to homes and businesses as smoothly as possible.

Through continuous monitoring equipment, any anomalies in performance can be highlighted very quickly and optimal decisions can be made. For instance, maintenance can be scheduled before potential downtime occurs, ensuring continuity of supply, or fault localisation and restoration in a much shorter timeframe.

Grid monitoring and fault localisation

Grid monitoring and fault localisation are key areas of expertise for ABB, exemplified by our investment in and collaboration with Zaphiro Technologies.

Zaphiro is a young Swiss company that offers grid monitoring solutions utilising phasor measurement technology. Zaphiro’s technology helps DSOs to continuously monitor their assets remotely by providing accurate visibility of grid status, real-time detection, and precise localisation of any type of grid faults. The use of phasor measurements allows Zaphiro to build an effective intelligent system requiring only a limited number of measuring points in key nodes of the network, enabling fast deployment, easy scalability, and, most importantly, low total cost of ownership coupled with high performance.

Moreover, Zaphiro’s algorithms can precisely localise where the fault might occur in the network, making it easier for operators to decide how to restore the power and clear the faulty area quickly.

Zaphiro’s offering is key for DSOs looking to integrate distributed energy resources into their network as part of their decarbonisation strategy, allowing them to reduce emissions while ensuring grid stability and resilience.

Optimising energy storage assets

Battery energy storage systems (BESS) provide a powerful tool for grappling with the increasing complexity – and decentralisation – of the grid. By allowing energy to be stored for prolonged periods and released on demand, battery energy storage systems offer an effective way to absorb and manage fluctuations in supply and demand, better accommodating unplanned outages and preventing the revenue losses associated with power cuts. It’s no wonder that BloombergNEF (BNEF) forecasts that the global energy storage market will grow 15-fold by 2030.

While global providers can supply the battery systems themselves, collaborations with startups have the potential to add another layer of digitalisation, allowing operators to better respond to evolving energy requirements.

For example, the most recent winner of the Distribution Solutions category of the ABB Electrification Startup Challenge is Danish startup Hybrid Greentech. Its proposed new control logic software for ABB’s battery energy storage systems could create a fully AI-driven virtual power plant, improving the return on investment for batteries by ten years or more, and increasing the revenue and performance of energy storage installations.

While optimising the operations of energy storage assets, the system can deliver savings, better performance, and increased lifetime, allowing longer lifetime with increased performance.

Virtualised protection and control

The shift to electrification also requires new technologies and systems that can be used alongside fundamental equipment such as digital-enabled switchgear to provide the regulation and control needed to manage variable energy generation.

This means protection and control systems must be more flexible than ever before, so they can reconfigure fast enough to keep pace with the continuous introduction of new energy sources, from solar power to energy storage systems, and electrical loads, such as electric vehicles.

One of the ways to achieve this and deliver optimised operation and maintenance processes is, again, through digitalisation.

Smart control and protection systems for substations have already been on the market for several years. However, ABB has developed its digitalisation offer further, building the first fully virtualised substation, which means DSOs can simply order control and protection software and install it on the hardware of their choice. As the software is fully modular, it offers substations the flexibility to change with the evolving grid, handling new network functionalities as required.

Moving the needle with digitalisation

Energy insecurity and a global focus on decentralising the grid are profoundly shifting the way we generate, distribute and consume electricity. Demand is growing for resilient, efficient, and sustainable power systems, and operators are in desperate need of technologies and innovation that can help them achieve that.

Digital technologies have the potential to significantly move the needle in supporting DSOs in the challenge of moving towards decarbonisation. ABB is working both on enhancing its control and protection technologies and on collaborating with startups and integrating their innovations.

We have a greater chance of bringing our most ambitious ideas to fruition when we think outside the box. It is this broader collaboration that will inject new energy, innovation and ideas into our industry, helping DSOs address their greatest challenges on the road to a low-carbon future.

This article first appeared in Modern Power Systems magazine.