What’s a harried grid operator to make of the smart grid as it exists today? So far, we’ve got a lot of smart meters (with or without connections to grid network operations centers), a lot of transmission and distribution grid systems built as one-off, siloed solutions, and perhaps some demand response programs to get power users to ease off at times when grid stress reaches the boiling point.

Each of these systems tends to be isolated from the other, making it hard for the people in charge of making sure the grid is getting power from generators to end-users to use them as a functional whole. Add all the new demand-supply unpredictability, whether in the form of intermittent wind and solar power supply, or increasingly tech-savvy and price-sensitive user demand, and we’ve got a recipe for severe stress.

Last month, giant European energy company E.ON, along with Ventyx, the software arm of Swiss grid giant ABB, announced a partnership aimed at solving some of these problems for E.ON’s grid control center in Malmo, Sweden. The project, set to be installed and ready for testing in early 2014 for an undisclosed cost, represents a chance for Ventyx and ABB to test their chops at integrating back-office information technology (IT) and grid-side operations technology (OT) into a platform that grid operators can use, according to Kennet Wilhelmsson, Ventyx senior vice president.

“Normally in a control center, the operators are quite reactive, and that causes quite a lot of stress for the operators,” he said. “We want to change this to be more predictive, especially when you have renewables coming into the system.” While Sweden gets about 60 percent of its electricity from hydropower, and much of the rest from nuclear, its share of renewables is increasing, he said. It’s also interconnected to countries like Denmark, where about half the power comes from wind turbines, and Germany, where a proposed phase-out of nuclear power has left the country uncertain about its energy future.

Weather Forecasts, Neural Networks and the Grid

Let’s start with the IT side, where Ventyx is putting together a set of  load forecasting, network optimization and business analytics for E.ON’s network operations center. ABB already supplies E.ON’s SCADA system for its Swedish operations, but the new project plans to add a lot more features to that network, Wilhelmsson said.

It starts with a set of power grid forecasts and weather forecasts that collect relevant data for grid planning, he said. From there, Ventyx feeds the data into a neural network and forecasting engine, which supplies its output to E.ON’s energy management system (EMS), to help it better predict its current status, as well as optimize its operations for volt/VAR optimization and other such efficiency tasks, he said.

Ventyx also provides data analytics software to interpret all the incoming SCADA and weather data in a way that fits into grid operators’ mapping and network management schemes, he said. That allows grid operators a better set of tools to balance economic and physics equations in their heads while keeping the grid stable at all times, he said.

For example, E.ON operates a set of transformers in the southern part of Sweden that it wants to start controlling beyond the simple, biannual winter and summer presets they’re programmed to today, he said. It also operates about 15 high-voltage substations together with the national distribution system operator, and needs to limit the use of those substations within certain limits under Sweden’s tariff system, he said. Insight into how to prevent the rare but expensive spikes that exceed those thresholds is worth a lot of money.

These aren’t unique claims that Ventyx is making here: pretty much every other big grid vendor is promising similar new functionality and data analytics capabilities out of its grid operations systems, and IT giants like IBM, Oracle and Microsoft are deep into the smart grid systems integration game. But ABB, which spent nearly $1 billion to buy Ventyx in 2010, does have a good combination of technology, from its hard grid equipment expertise to the Ventyx software portfolio that spans everything from transmission and generation planning tools to energy market analysis and execution platforms, to work with.

Tying Distributed Assets Into the Big Picture

At the same time, Ventyx is looking to connect demand response and distributed resource management to its new central grid platform, Wilhelmsson said. While that part of the project isn’t as fully fleshed out yet, the long-range plan is to match the load control and pricing signals that utilities send to their customers to the change in power consumption that those signals cause across the grid at large, to better optimize grid operations at a wide scale, he said.

That could help to relieve congestion along heavily used transmission corridors or in certain city neighborhoods, as well as allow E.ON to apply “dynamic line ratings” that take current conditions into account when determining how much power it can put through any one section of the grid as a whole, he added. It’s also a must-have to integrate wind power, as well as solar panels, plug-in electric vehicles and all the other distributed power-using technologies being contemplated to help reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

At E.ON, Ventyx is specifically looking at integrating industrial motors, boilers and other significant loads into its grid-wide weather forecasting and SCADA systems, Wilhelmsson said. In the future, the partner companies could connect them to various utility systems like billing or home automation systems, or use variables like greenhouse gas emissions, as Ventyx is doing in other projects, he said. 

Big grid operators, such as Europe’s national grid management entities or the RTOs and ISO that control large swathes of the United States, have traditionally lacked specific insight into just what individual end-users are doing with their electricity, or even how much they’re consuming. While today’s big demand response programs link power users and grid operators in ways that help balance demand and supply, whether in day-ahead or second-by-second increments, they don’t necessarily connect to the same systems that monitor and control the grid itself.

Connecting those two systems is devilishly complex, particularly given that for the first time, some customers are starting to generate their own power as well as consuming it. Alongside the Ventyx/E.ON partnership, we’re seeing similar projects underway, including one from grid giant Siemens and utility RWE in Germany, that are taking on the challenge at a nationwide level.