Why IT Architecture holds the Key for Building Future-Fit Utilities

Dev Tales, Blog posts

The transition to a distributed energy model is forcing many utilities to rethink their IT architecture. Grid flexibility, changes in consumer behavior, the shift to renewables and the growing importance of real-time energy data are all adding to a highly complex environment. In addition, the growing list of extreme weather events has put grid resilience in the spotlight.

This operating environment is making system flexibility a core driver in the energy market and a means of managing the grid as more variable energy resources are brought online. But a different type of flexibility is also needed as utilities adapt to today’s dynamic energy landscape. Constant innovation is key. And yet according to Gartner, most utility IT teams apply 35 percent of all IT spending on system integration and spend more than 80% of their time accessing the data they need, leaving insufficient time and resources for the innovation that is now necessary to keep on top of changes in the market.

This environment of change is upending many of the IT approaches that have worked for utilities in the past. Access to data, particularly to real time data, is becoming urgent. As energy data becomes a valuable asset, Data Integration has become one of the most important issues for creating a modern grid fit for utility 4.0. This is why having the right IT architecture has become a pressing topic for the industry.


Architecting the Future Energy Landscape

Our recent webinar, ‘Architecting the Future Energy Landscape’ explored this topic in depth. The panel, moderated by our CEO, Thorsten Heller, contributed expert knowledge on the subject from a range of perspectives. Rune Hogga, CEO of Agder Energi Flexibility spoke about creating a local energy marketplace where system flexibility can be traded. Chris Potter, Principal Solutions Architect at Siemens Advanta Consulting discussed the use of Data Hubs for sharing information between Distribution System Operators and energy companies. Bert Lutje Berenbroek, CEO of NET2GRID shared his experience of using granular energy data for engaging consumers. Jens Cornelius, Senior Business Director at KMD, talked about the value of a Composable Systems approach to IT architecture, enabling utilities to rapidly adapt to whatever the future energy landscape has in store.

We even learned why the change to a distributed energy system means that the traditional ‘champagne tower’ approach to energy distribution of the past is no longer working.

A New Distributed Utility Model: Why the Champagne Tower no longer works

The ‘top down’ uni-directional grid of the past is coming to an end. It is being replaced by a distributed, ‘bidirectional’ system. As Thorsten pointed out in the webinar, every ‘node’ in the system, whether that’s an energy producer or consumer, is creating data. This new system requires a different IT architecture from those typically used in the past.

Thorsten’s analogy is the champagne tower. In the old, top-down system, each glass can be filled from the top. But if people start filling the tower from the sides and the bottom, the process becomes impossible to manage.


A Distributed System in Microcosm: A Flexibility Marketplace in Practice

How could a flexibility energy market work in practice? Norwegian energy company, Agder Energi Flexibility has already created a local energy marketplace where energy suppliers and grid operators can purchase flexibility from participating consumers.

A Flexibility Marketplace

The Agder region has been using a variable, renewable energy source for the past century in the form of hydropower. In addition to the energy suppliers, participating local businesses and households form the ‘nodes’ in the local energy market. These consumers can be paid to reduce energy consumption when the load on the grid is too large.

Utility Companies Become IT Companies

This scheme highlights two trends in utilities’ development. The first is the vital role that data plays in a distributed system where flexibility is used to manage the grid. As Rune pointed out in the webinar, flexibility is the only way to rapidly shift to renewable energy. In Agder Energi Flexibility’s marketplace, data from Smart Meters is critical with each ‘node’ having a Smart Meter ID that is used to monitor energy usage.

The second trend Rune identified is the evolution of utilities into IT companies in addition to their role of energy suppliers. Utilities need to have an IT architecture that can integrate diverse data streams and rapidly scale to bring new sources of data, such as weather data or even competitor data, into use.

Agder Energi Flexibility’s marketplace demonstrates how this IT architecture must also support a distributed system. It can only work if data from all the ‘nodes’ in the system is visible and can be shared


Data Hub Architecture: Driving the Transformation of Distribution Network Operators

Data transparency and data sharing are familiar concepts to Siemens Advanta’s Chris Potter. In the UK market where he operates, Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) will be mandated to share data in the next regulatory period. As Chris pointed out in the webinar, this data sharing is vital as more Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) are introduced and DNOs take on the role of system balancing. In this environment, transparency of the network – granular detail about how the grid is operating at any given moment – is critical.

Thorsten added that this transparency is often the first step utilities take as they approach system balancing and a flexibility marketplace.

The Benefits of a Data Hub for Utilities

Chris described how a Data Hub architecture is essential in driving the transformation of DNOs. The Data Lake component of the Data Hub enables data sharing. This will become even more important as 5G is rolled out and increased volumes of data will be delivered from sensors and behind the meter innovations, all at faster speeds.

An integration layer transforms a Data Lake to a Data Hub. It offers a contextual model, giving information on data points, enabling utilities to interpret data more accurately.

An Energy Data Mesh

Thorsten pointed out that in an increasingly distributed energy system, the data architecture also needs to be distributed. Distributed data lakes or an ‘energy data mesh’ provide an infrastructure where different data buckets can be managed and processed independently of others.

The need for a Data Hub architecture will become pressing as real-time data becomes increasingly important for balancing the grid and 5G makes its delivery more possible.


From Energy Retailer to Energy-as-a-Service

Access to granular, disaggregated energy data is a key step towards an ‘Energy-as-a-Service’ model for utilities.

During the webinar, Bert Lutje Berenbroek of NET2GRID noted that it is the real-time insights provided by Smart Meter data that consumers find engaging. These insights can transform customers into active participants in the energy system, a key ingredient for a flexibility market.

An Energy-as-a-Service Model

NET2GRID has developed the concept of ‘happy hour energy’ for a German energy retailer. Customers are nudged into using energy at certain times by the offer of large price rebates. It relies on customers viewing disaggregated, real-time insights of their energy usage, enabling them to see how individual appliances are using energy.

The ‘Energy-as-a-Service’ or utility as ‘Lifestyle Provider’ approach has what Bert described as a ‘Big Data Flywheel’ effect. He pointed out that while Smart Meter batch data is generally available in most markets, as consumers become more engaged energy participants, they are more likely to give suppliers additional access to real-time data directly from Smart Meters. NET2GRID has developed technology that can be added to Smart Meters, allowing this data to be captured. They have discovered that as customers become more engaged, they are more likely to want this technology for their households.

Energy-as-a-Service and Flexibility

This enables retailers to offer targeted services and support to customers. But it also gives the utility detailed information that can be used for more accurate energy forecasting, improving intraday forecasting and flexibility in the grid.

In the transition of energy retailer to lifestyle provider, access to granular, disaggregated Smart Meter data is key.


Composable Systems: A Utility IT Architecture Approach that offers Adaptability

The DNOs, energy retailers and energy marketplace perspectives in the webinar all highlight the importance of data for grid flexibility. But this data also requires an adaptable, flexible approach to utility IT architecture. Not only must it handle growing quantities of data, but it must also provide access to high quality data. It must move fast and adapt quickly.

Composable Systems and Tetris

Jens Cornelius of KMD likens architecting for the future utility as playing a game of Tetris. If you don’t move quickly, you’re going to lose the game. You must be able to rapidly move ‘tiles’ in and out of position when required.

Composable Systems offer utilities this level of flexibility and the ability to rapidly adapt when the energy landscape changes.

In Tetris, a solid beginning is critical to staying in the game. In a Composable System, good quality data is the starting point. Getting the architecture and data integrations in place that can deliver this data provide the solid foundations that are needed.

In discussing IT architecture all the panelists spoke about its impact on utilities’ future development: utilities as data-driven companies, utilities as lifestyle providers, utilities as IT companies. This demonstrates the importance that data and IT architecture has in the evolution of utility 4.0. It will become increasingly important as utilities move to a ‘bottom up’ model and more variable energy resources are brought online. As Jens commented in the webinar, utilities must become organizations that can help people live sustainably on our planet. We need to architect the future to use energy in the best possible way.

About Greenbird Integration Technology

Greenbird is the leading provider of big data integration technology for the utilities sector and industrial IoT. Greenbird's flagship solution, Utilihive, simplifies data integration and big energy data management to help utilities achieve the SDGs faster by accelerating the transition to green energy. From its headquarters in Oslo, Norway, Greenbird enables digital transformation in the utilities sector and drives the energy revolution. Read more at Utilihive.