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Forging a Digital Future and Unifying Utilities in the Era of ICT Transition

Digital ICT Summit Sneak Peek

The countdown is to the Power + Utilities Australia 2024 Leadership Summit. In anticipation, we’re giving you exclusive insight into what you can expect our line-up of industry professionals and experts to be discussing.

This year, the summit includes a dedicated stream to ICT and Cyber trends in Australia’s utilities sector. Without a common, consistent ICT/cyber security layer, utilities find themselves each trying to solve the same problem in their own way. By collaborating and establishing shared standards, utilities can effectively leverage digital technologies to enhance reliability, optimize resources, and ensure the security of critical infrastructure in an increasingly interconnected world

We spoke to 2024 Leadership Summit speakers Phil Blythe of Climate Tech Assembly and Caitlin Trethewy from AGL, as they give us their thoughts before their highly anticipated session in May.

ICT Session speakers

1. What are the main challenges in transitioning to a unified digital infrastructure, and how can they be addressed effectively?

Caitlin Trethewy:

The key challenge is to drive standardisation and interoperability while also moving at pace, encouraging innovation, and maintaining customer choice.  Standardisation and interoperability are critical to deploying and operating distributed energy resources reliably and predictably to support the grid.

The challenge lies in the speed of transition. Which will be determined by various factors including customer demands, the imperative of decarbonization, and the economic viability of distributed energy technologies. However, amidst this urgency, it’s crucial that a unified digital infrastructure isn’t just about standardization, but also about fostering innovation. It should provide a framework where utilities can experiment with different technologies, products, and business models while still operating within a cohesive ecosystem. Central to this is ensuring customer choice remains paramount. A unified digital infrastructure must accommodate a diverse array of compatible devices. As well as facilitate the introduction of new energy products and services, and encourage participation from various stakeholders in the energy landscape.

Collaboration across government, and all areas of industry with a strong focus on customer outcomes will be critical.

Phil Blythe:

There are many challenges across the spheres of policy, incentives, coordination and political will. However I think the biggest challenge is cultural. The utilities sector, especially the regulated components, has constructed itself to resemble a fortress – with massive outer walls and guards safeguarding the kingdom, yet lacking adequate internal security measures. Modern cities don’t work like this. Everything and everyone now works on a basis of Zero Trust. I lock my car, my house, I don’t trust people in the street unless they’ve been introduced into my network. As we electrify, we will need to further embrace this model. And the frontier for this change will be DER and CER.

2. What specific digital infrastructure investments do you believe are critical for utilities in Australia to modernize their grid systems and adapt to emerging challenges such as distributed energy resources (DERs) and climate change?

Caitlin Trethewy:

Investments should prioritize addressing customer needs while harnessing the substantial potential of distributed energy resources (DERs) to enhance grid systems. DERs hold the capacity to generate value across various domains, including participation in wholesale markets, alleviating network capacity limitations, and optimizing the utilization of renewable energy sources. Additionally, investments in digital infrastructure should prioritize efficiency and facilitate a rich ecosystem of technologies, products, and services. This approach empowers customers with a diverse array of options to choose from. Ultimately enhancing their overall experience and engagement with energy solutions.

Phil Blythe:

I think the biggest issues for scaling out renewables portfolios, whether large scale wind, solar and storage, or small scale V2G or controlled hot water, will be in the security and reliability of these assets. Cyber threats from foreign state actors are a huge concern. So too is the fragility of our infrastructure to a disruption from a telco outage or a poor quality firmware update that can disrupt large fleets of solar generation. Focusing our efforts on increasing our reliability and resilience in the face of these threats should be foundational for any common digital infrastructure.

3. How do you think the adoption of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and smart grid technologies is reshaping the way utilities manage and optimize their networks? What benefits do these advancements bring to both utilities and consumers?

Caitlin Trethewy:

Advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) serves as a pivotal facilitator for the integration of distributed energy resources. With AMI, customers gain enhanced visibility and control over their electricity consumption and expenditure. Along with increased access to alternative pricing structures. Moreover, these technologies enable utilities to manage customer load and generation more effectively. For instance, AGL’s involvement in the ARENA-funded PLUS ES South Australia Demand Flexibility trial showcases the potential of AMI. Where the electric hot water systems of 20,000 AGL customers are orchestrated through smart meters. This demonstrates the practical application of these capabilities in demand-side management initiatives.

Phil Blythe:

I think the concept of smart grid has evolved significantly from what I would refer to as the first generation of Smart Grid technology in the 2010-2015 period. This first generation was very focused on AMI and home gateway devices. Where in practice the focus from consumers over the last decade has been to install solar, storage and load control devices to reduce bills and improve resilience. Now we see solar and electric hot water being controlled at scale. Smart grid is now becoming a primary means for network utilities to manage capacity on their network. So, that’s great for the network companies, but perhaps less so for the consumers. This is an area that I think can and should be improved.

4. In what ways do you anticipate that the integration of digital infrastructure into utility operations will enhance grid resilience, enable more effective demand-side management, and support the transition to a cleaner, more sustainable energy future in Australia?

Caitlin Trethewy:

Digital infrastructure plays a pivotal role in unlocking the value potential inherent in the integration of distributed energy resources (DERs). Through robust digital infrastructure, utilities can achieve more detailed and rapid visibility and control over these resources. AGL, recognizing the significance of this, made early investments in such capabilities. For instance, in collaboration with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), AGL launched the Virtual Power Plant (VPP) initiative in 2016. Aimed at deploying smart, controllable batteries to 1,000 households in South Australia. Leveraging its VPP platform, AGL exercises control over its DER assets. Enabling real-time monitoring, optimization, and bidding across multiple wholesale markets. This platform integrates weather data and market forecasting to ensure efficient operation. Additionally, AGL provides transparency to its residential battery VPP customers through the AGL app. Offering insights into how their battery is utilized within the broader energy ecosystem.

Phil Blythe:

Whichever path we go forward from here, at least in Australia, there will be a definite role for digital infrastructure to be managing security and resilience of our power system and its interactivity with all things electrification – demand management, solar, storage, EVs and so on. But there are some paths that show more promise than others. For example, each utility can build their systems in silos, without national consistency. Furthermore, the lack of links to the broader market may lead to a subpar consumer experience, increased costs, and the potential squandering of unused megawatt capacity. Or digital infrastructure can be smarter, more agile, and communicate well across traditional boundaries. Whilst still remaining cyber secure and resilient to unforeseen events.

Don’t miss hearing from our speakers live this 7 -8 May! Book your ticket here.

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