Distributech Insights with Camlin COO, Michael Cunningham

Energy, 1st February 2023

The electricity grid is not something that most people think about during their daily lives. Not much thought is given to the fact that it underpins everything we do. Parents getting their kids ready and out to school; the remote worker in their home office delivering on a deadline; the teacher marking homework under the desk light. Everything we do is enabled by the grid. Most people assume that electrical power is a given, and that when the switch is flicked the lights will always come on.

That is until something goes wrong, and the lights go out. And only when an outage lasts any length of time then there is a glimpse of just how utterly dependent on the power grid we truly are. The reality is there is a huge industry and infrastructure behind the scenes that is often unseen.

However, the electricity grid is going through some fundamental and critical changes, which means the future is not as clear as it once was. If we are to meet our climate change targets, then the grid needs to be sustainable and ‘net zero.’ It also needs to take on much of the heavy lifting from other industries and their ‘road to net zero’, such as the electrification of transportation and heat.

Simply, the traditional grid is large generation (fossil, nuclear, large hydro) with one-directional power flow to the point of consumption, with supply and demand balanced at any point in time. However, the ‘grid of the future’ will look quite different to this. It will include a range of renewable energy sources coming into the grid at various voltage levels and times. Consumption is also changing, with the uptake of EVs for example. Energy storage will become progressively more important, as renewable generation capability is not necessarily matched to the time of need.

This new picture is much more complex, and ‘grid formation’ is going to become an increasing challenge in the coming years. And all of this must be achieved on an ageing network that is already largely beyond design life, and it needs to be economically viable. Yet it must succeed because of the priorities outlined above – our dependence on reliable and viable energy, and the need to create a net zero future for us all.

At Camlin we believe we have a significant role to play on this journey and we are fully committed. Our vision is to ‘Realise and Enable the Grid of the Future’ and we are actively ‘Imagineering’ a Net Zero Grid that never fails (here of course I exclude uncontrollable external events). To borrow a phrase, ‘what got us here, will not get us there’ and success will require new thinking and ideas, new technologies, and new partnerships.

As a business we are in unique our capabilities. We have the end-to-end solutions across generation, transmission & distribution, combined next generation software capabilities and expertise. Our international energy business is focused on asset monitoring solutions for power transformers, generators, and circuit breakers, offering innovative sensing technology, as well as software and data solutions and expert services. Asset management is ultimately about risk, and how to understand and manage it, and this means that the world of asset management is going to fundamentally change on this journey. The risk profile for power transformers can be significantly different to what is modelled, based on this new network paradigm. Likewise, large fossil fuel power plant generator sets can have a completely different life now compared to what they were designed for.

Combine this with our capabilities in the UK, where we have revolutionized one of the world’s most high regulated distribution networks with our network and fault management solutions for the UK distribution sector. We now have the deepest data set and knowledge of network operations in the world, and we are actively engaged in projects helping our utility partners on this journey.

We can see an inexorable change in the industry and the ‘grid of the future,’ where network operations and asset management are going to become increasingly intertwined. As networks become more flexible and decentralised, the risk profile for asset management will change. However, this creates a problem, as these changes, and their impacts on assets, are largely unknown. In general terms, the sensing, modelling, and knowledge is not there at present. The current technologies and methodologies (what got us here) will not provide the understanding of these changes and their impacts that is needed (will not get us there).

At Camlin we see the need for a much more ‘holistic’ approach to the management of the grid of the future. One where network operations and asset management are more integrated, and where distribution, transmission and generation do not operate in silos. Where new models of the network and assets are created and deployed much more rapidly, as we evolve the grid, and we have accurate understanding of risk and how to manage it. Where power and IT networks are secure and data is readily converted into information, knowledge, and wisdom and provides actionable insights where needed.

Aligning our end-to-end capabilities with our concept of the ‘vertical data pipeline’ we are building a portfolio of hardware, software and data solutions that will help meet this challenge. Where we are unique is in our capabilities in sensing technology across the grid, network and asset monitoring software tools, data engineering and data science (dedicated Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning teams), deep domain knowledge of the grid and assets, and crucially in our ability and commitment to align all of these to this task.

It is no small thing to have work that one feels matters and can positively impact deeply critical issues. Of course, Camlin are not the solution to this big issue; but we are a part of it. And we are committed to playing our part. We are working with utility partners, and increasingly with industrial collaborators to progress this vision – to ‘realise and enable this grid of the future.’

So, I encourage all my colleagues in the industry to imagine a net zero grid that never fails, and everything it is going to take to get us there.

Because we are.

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