European power grid operators cook up ‘App Store’ for smart grids

Existing smart grid technology allows households to pool their consumption data and use it to obtain cheaper electricity prices from “aggregators” that negotiate on behalf of consumers to get a better deal from electricity companies. [National Grid]

EXCLUSIVE / Grid operators from all over Europe are currently finalising plans to launch a digital information exchange platform that will serve as a basis for developing new digital applications to manage electricity flows and take up growing amounts of renewable energy.

ENTSOE-E, the pan-European electricity network operators association, is currently putting the finishing touches to an IT roadmap that will include common projects such as the launch of an “App Store” for smart grids.

Work has started on a “core platform” for data exchange between national and regional grid operators, referred to as a Common Grid Model and Operational Planning Data environment (CGM-OPDE).

The platform will be fully up and running in 3 to 5 years, said Laurent Schmitt, the secretary general of ENTSO-E, which represents 42 electricity transmission system operators (TSOs) from 35 European countries.

The total amount of the investment is confidential but it will be “worth several tens of millions” of euros and involve the participation of grid operators from all across Europe, Schmitt told

The platform will form the “core backbone” for the intra-day trading of electricity and real-time market operations which are seen as crucial to managing increasing amounts of electricity coming from intermittent renewable sources such as wind and solar.

“We think the CGM-OPDE platform is actually a kind of App Store for TSOs, if I may say,” Schmitt explained, saying the development of new digital tools to manage electricity flows was in line with the evolution of electricity markets foreseen in the EU’s Energy Union package of legislation tabled in November last year.

“We’re going to release various apps on this environment,” he continued, saying basic requirements to develop new applications will be available as of mid-2018.

Some of these applications will be operated in data centres run by national electricity grid operators or regional coordination centres, Schmitt said. “But what is interesting is that we have come together to design these applications along a common architecture” based on smart grids standards developed at European level.

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Digitalisation has become a buzzword in the electricity sector and among policymakers in Brussels. Estonia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of EU member states, has tied ongoing discussions on a new electricity market design directive with digital policy, arguing that the two are intimately linked.

More systematic exchange of data will enable the deployment of additional renewable energy capacity and allow a more efficient management of electricity flows, which will ultimately help reduce consumers’ energy bills, an Estonian EU Presidency official told reporters on 28 June.

But that implies consumers sharing their private data with energy companies, in line with EU privacy rules, the official said, calling for data to be able to flow seamlessly on Europe’s power grids.

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Schmitt confirmed that easing the flow of renewable energy from north to south and getting further efficiency gains were the main objectives of the new digital platform.

“We want to maximise the usage of the available grid capacity to [help] flow renewable energy across Europe,” he said, something which is currently hampered because of grid congestion across borders as well as within countries. “We need new algorithm methods to maximise this available capacity. So it all starts with doing the right calculations,” Schmitt added.

But more accurate calculations can’t do everything, he cautioned, saying investments worth €150 billion have been listed in Europe to develop new grid capacity and interconnections to decrease congestion.

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As consumers increasingly switch to electric cars and install solar panels on their roofs, the importance of local power distribution networks is also expected to grow. In fact, electricity firms such as Spain’s Iberdrola are currently investing heavily in local power distribution networks, hoping to reap the benefits of an economy-wide electrification process currently underway.

“In the future, there will be a need for DSO-TSO real-time coordination and exchange of information on grid security,” Schmitt said, referring to Distribution System Operators (DSOs) delivering electricity at the local level.

There is currently little data exchanges between TSOs and DSOs, Schmitt explained, saying a step change will happen when DSOs become more than mere power distribution companies and start managing electricity flows, based on real-time consumer data.

“We do not deny that the DSO must have visibility into some of these balancing and real-time operations,” Schmitt pointed out, saying “this is an area where we must work together”. A roadmap to intensify data exchanges has in fact already been drawn up by a joint TSO-DSO cooperation platform. And an EU-funded research project has recently been launched to deepen data exchanges in the future.

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Coordinated attack on thermostats

In fact, Schmitt admitted that data management had become a “strategic challenge” for grid operators and the wider electricity industry, raising issues related to data privacy, ownership and cyber security.

In most instances, private data will be “aggregated” at grid level, ensuring it remains anonymous, Schmitt pointed out. But he said “a proper process should be put in place to ask authorisation from consumers” when their data is being used for other purposes than grid management.

Data anonymisation will also be crucial from a cyber security perspective, Schmitt added, warning that cyber attacks on power grids had become “more serious” and “politically-driven” in recent years. The data, in this case, is not private consumption data generated by people’s fridges or washing machines but related to the wires in the system – where the lines are connected, how they are connected together, their impedance, etc.

“If that critical data goes on the dark side of the web, you could have people making bad use of it for disturbing the European system,” Schmitt said, warning cyber attacks could come indirectly through the “aggregation” of consumption data generated by private households.

“A targeted attack against a set of coordinated controls in thermostats can have a major load effect and imbalance the system,” creating a black-out, Schmitt warned.

Data aggregators

Aside from cyber security, policymakers believe data “aggregators” will play an increasingly important role in shaping future electricity markets – bringing more flexibility in the electricity system.

Existing smart grid technology allows households to pool their consumption data and use it to obtain cheaper electricity prices from aggregators that negotiate on behalf of consumers to get a better deal from electricity companies.

As they develop, Schmitt said these aggregators would act like virtual power plants and disrupt the electricity sector in the same way that virtual network operators disrupted the telecoms market,

“We think aggregators do bring innovation into the market because they sometimes focus on specifics topics like storage and demand-response,” which bring flexibility to power supply and demand management. “Whoever brings flexibility into the system, we are happy to receive them and we want to create a level playing environment.”

From an environmental point of view, “it also makes sense to balance renewables more with storage and demand-response than with polluting plants such as coal plants”, Schmitt said. “So we hope the market will go in the right direction.”

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