Grid Instruments: Low voltage distribution grids are still underdeveloped
Date: November 3rd 2021
Author: Alenka Lena Klopčič
In order to become really ‘smart’, low voltage distribution networks will require the most work by far, says Urban Kuhar, the CEO and co-founder of Grid Instruments.“We started back in 2018 when I was nearing the end of my PhD dissertation, which was on the observability of power distribution networks. During my doctoral studies, I was working on a European research project with a DSO company where we were exploring options for the observability of distribution grids. It became apparent to me, that what was missing were accurate models of low voltage power distribution networks. Most of the distribution companies have their models in geoinformation system databases, but there are estimates that 10% to 35% of the meters have incorrect parameters, such as feeder and transformer connections and so forth. Not to mention that all of low voltage network models throughout the world are still single phase. The network itself, of course, is three-phase, and this is currently not being modelled. So the state of low voltage distribution grids in terms of digitalisation is still very underdeveloped. If you look at the complete power grid and what it will take to make it, let's say, smart, low voltage distribution networks will require the most work by far. This is because the vast majority of the new generation units and larger loads like heat pumps, electric vehicles and storage devices will all be getting connected into the low voltage part of the distribution grid,” Urban Kuhar, CEO and co-founder of Grid Instruments, explained when answering Energetika.NET’s question about his and his startup’s path in the latest video interview for the special ‘Clean Tech Entrepreneurs for a Sustainable Future’ video series conducted by Energetika.NET for its energy sector audience and supported by WorldChicago.
“So the first step would be to get an accurate picture of current network capabilities and to maximize the utilization of the current network and then to correctly prioritize network reinforcements and expansions,” adds Kuhar.
A full array of tools for the global networks
At Grid Instruments they are offering the Grid Topology Identification System which is, according to their webpage, a complete solution for modelling a low voltage network. When talking about this solution, Kuhar says that their first product is actually a phase identification system. “This is a voltmeter-like device that can uniquely determine the phase anywhere in the network. It consists of a couple of reference devices that are permanently installed in the network, and field devices can then be used by crews doing network reconfigurations on new customer connections, switching manoeuvres and the like. Until recently, this kind of technology was not widely used because single phase model planning was used, and at least in most cases, is still being used in the distribution network.”
However, Kuhar continues: “But we believe that in the future, three-phase planning and monitoring of distribution grids will become standard, and this tool will be indispensable if network operators want to maintain orderly connections in their network.” The other thing that they have been working on is a product called Gridscope - a software platform that can help with identification of a low voltage network only from smart meter measurements.
They have brought their solution to the prototype phase with their first customer – Elektro Primorska. How challenging is it to explain to potential customers what Grid Instruments really offers? Answering this, Urban Kuhar says that they have been working through, “let's say, several iterations with our first customers over the past two years for the phase identification system. Our experience to date has been that it is not very hard. Once you're talking to the distribution engineers, they usually immediately understand the solution. The other thing is that our distribution companies usually move quite slowly through the sales process, so adoption is then slower.”
Still, the feedback that they are getting has been good. This gives them an impetus for the future, in which they would eventually like to develop a full array of tools for network identification and destination. “The digitalization of the low voltage grid is still in its very early stages in most parts of the world. So I think that this kind of solution will definitely be used by all distribution operators. The reason being that it simply makes more sense to try to maximize utilization of the current network before planning and doing reinforcements and expansions. And you need to know your network very well to do this,” Kuhar explains.
According to him, in most of Europe and North America, the distribution network is still quite over dimensioned for the current levels of loading and generation. “But this will definitely change in the coming years. There are places like cities in Turkey and India that already have problems with congestion in the distribution network, even without any distributed generation and electric vehicles. So the need for such tools will grow rapidly, too.”
A man on the moon
At the very end, Kuhar talks about the sustainable future and responds to the question of whether EU is capable of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 or already achieving 55% greenhouse gas reduction by 2030.
“There's a lot to unpack here, first of all, I don't think that this is a technical question at all. There are some technical challenges here, but none that I would put into the, “very hard category.” There are still some people who say that this is technically impossible, and that the power system will be unstable with such a high share of renewables and electric cars will lack range and so forth. But I don't think that any of this holds up under serious scrutiny. There are many arguments that this is achievable, but too expensive, especially considering the fact that the 27 EU countries currently produce around 10% of the total greenhouse emissions, and that it would be easier and overall, also cheaper to try to reduce the global emissions by 10%,” he says among other things.
Further on, he provides two counter-arguments, the first being that it is impossible to estimate the financial justification for such projects. “For example, the US spent about ten years and nearly 300 billion inflation-adjusted dollars to put a man on the moon and such project would never have been approved if it had been based on its up-front financial justification. Even though later analyses showed a return of at least $10 for every dollar spent in the effort. So the other argument I would give is that I think it is better to strive for a decisive result of total neutrality on a smaller but still significant portion of the world than to reduce emissions by the same amount across the entire world, because in the long run, the result of total neutrality is what matters.”
“And I think that when Europe does that, it will be like running a four-minute mile. People will see that it is indeed possible, and this will serve as a great example for the rest. I also think that Europe is in a perfect position to do so. Europeans have very high environmental awareness, and this also seems to be the only big vision of the future that our political leaders can agree on and sell us. The operational side of the plan currently seems a bit slow, but I think that the rate of reduction of emissions will increase in the coming decades,” Urban Kuhar concludes.
If you want to learn more about Grid Instruments, one of the finalists for the Slovenian startup of the year in 2020, visit their webpage: http://gridinstruments.com/.
This article is available also in Slovene.