Transmission system operators are struggling to fulfill their traditional mission of maintaining security of supply in a rapidly evolving environment driven by digitalisation.
The electricity sector knows it is heading towards a digital revolution, but does not know yet what it will look like.
“The taxi world has changed due to Uber. The hotel business has changed due to Airbnb or Booking.com,” said Ben Voorhorst Vice-Chair of the Board of European Network of Transmission System Operators (ENTSO-E).
“But what will be the Uber moment for us?” he asked delegates at a conference of European transmission system operators, held in Bratislava last week (23 September).
Need for balance
The digitalisation of the grid holds the promise of greener electricity generated by a multitude of “energy citizens” equipped with solar panels on their rooftops.
That requires “smart” electricity grids, and keeping the load balanced, which is not an easy task for transmission system operators (TSOs) who have to take on board the variable inputs from renewable energies, depending on whether the sun shines or the wind blows.
Half of EU citizens – including local communities, schools and hospitals – could be producing their own renewable electricity by 2050, meeting 45% of the EU’s energy demand, according to new research published on Monday (26 September).
In Bratislava, TSO representatives shared notes about how to anticipate the known unknowns. They also voiced their expectations towards the European Commission, which is set to propose legislation by the end of the year on a new market design for electricity.
TSOs are responsible for transmitting electricity from large generation plants to local distribution system operators (DSOs). They have to ensure the balance of demand and supply in the grid at every moment. But that becomes increasingly difficult as more and more renewable energy sources are being connected to the distribution grid.
Part of the answer lies in digitisation, an issue associated more often with DSOs who deliver electricity to final consumers and buy back renewable electricity from them – typically generated by solar panels installed on their rooftops.
For the larger TSOs, smart grids means using digital technologies to adjust the fluctuations in power load and keep the system balanced.
But for now, TSOs view this mainly as a challenge to the EU’s flagship Energy Union policy, which aims for affordable, competitive low-carbon energy.
According to Juraj Nociar, the Head of Cabinet of Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, the Energy Union’s goals go beyond the decarbonisation agenda.
“We are changing the whole society,” said Nociar, a Slovak, in his opening speech at the Bratislava conference. He believes the “rapid digital revolution has created new opportunities no one could have dreamed about before”.
“Could you imagine a car that can program itself to charge its battery according to the weather forecast?” he asked. “If I told you that five years ago, you would tell me I am crazy and dreaming about something which is really not realistic,” he said.
For Nociar, technology is not the problem anymore. “It’s the question of making it available for more or less everyone,” he told a room full of TSO executives.
Digitalisation critical for grid flexibility
Peder Østermark Andreasen, the President of ENTSO-E and CEO of Energinet.dk, sees digitalisation as an opportunity, too.
“More and more of our resources are producing not according to a schedule, but according to weather conditions,” Andreasen told reporters at a press conference.
The share of renewables in the electrical system in some countries can reach up to 80%, he pointed out. “This calls for more flexibility,” he told journalists. “Smart girds and smart meters, digitalisation of the houses, free flow of data about the current status of the system are critically important,” he said.
For TSOs, the “rapid digital revolution” is putting DSOs and consumers at centre stage.
“There could be a good business case for DSOs, for aggregators and for traders to engage themselves in investing on the customer side in the distribution network to unlock the full potential of active customers supporting the system,” Andreasen argued.
“We can create markets, but we do not participate in these markets.”
“The problem (of digitisation) is primary a question for DSOs,” said Miroslav Stejskal, the chairman of the Slovak TSO Slovenská elektrizačná presonová sústava (SEPS), reminding journalists that, “The role of the TSOs is energy balancing.”
The European Commission’s vision of an Energy Union with citizens at its core, where consumers take ownership of the energy transition, is to be applauded but needs to be followed up with genuine policy change, writes Jonathan Gaventa.
Division of responsibilities
Actually, the precise role of TSOs in the 21st century electricity system is yet to be defined.
TSOs hope the European Commission’s new electricity market design proposals will allow them to cooperate better across borders and shed more light on future relationships between market players.
According to Kamila Csomai, the CEO of the Hungarian TSO MAVIR, the Commission is expected to define “the clear roles of responsibility between DSOs and TSOs, so as to ensure their efficient cooperation within and across countries”.
Price-sensitive washing machines
Current research shows a more nuanced picture of the future electricity grid.
Mark Van Stiphout, Deputy Head of Unit at the European Commission’s energy directorate, said the Commission is working on a project to foster TSO cross-border cooperation in using probabilistic forecasting in order to relieve congestion.
Another project has connected household devices, like washing machines, tied to the local grid powered by smaller generation units. They turn themselves on and off according to price signals.
“The customer just says, for example, ‘I want to have my laundry washed by tomorrow’,” Van Stiphout explained. He hinted that the Commission’s upcoming electricity market design initiative would promote regional cross-border cooperation between TSOs, as well as dynamic prices based on smart meters and wholesale markets.
“All of this is about making consumers participate more actively in the market,” Van Stiphout said.
Grids for citizens
While the traditional models and relationships in the power sector are being shaken up, it is important not to forget the ultimate goal, warned Antonella Battaglini, CEO of the Renewable Grid Initiative.
“We build grids for the future. Actually, it is for the citizens,” she told EurActiv.sk at the conference. “It’s not for the TSOs, the DSOs or the policy-makers. It’s for society as a whole.”
Half of Europeans could have solar panels on their roofs by 2050. And the trend won’t stop as small-scale energy cooperatives bring in eight times more revenue to local authorities than big utilities, argues Dirk Vansintjan.