New Technologies Driving Electric Grid Modernization

Over the past couple of decades, the expected growth in electricity usage unexpectedly flatlined, leaving utilities with stagnant revenue, but aging infrastructure in need of capital investment. Then came the technology revolution of the last five years, with electric vehicles (EVs) becoming more popular as governments worldwide mandate lower emissions, and microgeneration of electricity via solar and other sources complicating management of the overall grid. These novel demands on the grid, and disruptive new technologies and capabilities like distributed energy resource management, are pushing utilities out of their comfort zones and into a scramble to modernize.

The most high-profile disruptive tech, of course, is the exploding growth in EVs. Once a rare sight on the roadways, Tesla and Toyota EVs are everywhere, and even legendary sports cars from Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, and BMW are available in electric versions.

The European Union has mandated zero emissions from automakers by 2035, and the U.S. is aiming to cut emissions in half by 2030. Hence, the 9.5 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide today are expected to swell to more than 80 million by 2030, according to a study by

That explosion in demand is driving a renewed sense of urgency in the electric utility industry, where aging power grids are already showing vulnerability. Just last year, extreme heat waves across Europe forced utilities to limit capacity and import more natural gas when the use of gas is being discouraged for environmental reasons. France, normally an exporter of power, became an importer as half of its nuclear capacity was offline for maintenance during the summer surge. In the U.S., extended heat waves and subzero cold snaps resulted in rolling blackouts and unplanned outages.

Microgeneration of electricity via rooftop solar panels for individual homes or solar and wind farms for businesses or communities pose both a potential solution and a new modernization problem for utilities. Connecting microgeneration sites to the grid can take pressure off the system, especially during peak demand times, but it also requires the utility to invest in systems to manage the influx of disparate power sources to the grid.

Getting a handle on all these disruptive technologies will require a utility to invest in new technology itself. The first step for many utilities will be to simply reinforce and update their current infrastructure. The question is whether utilities will also make the investment in capabilities for real-time insights and intelligence into their networks that will be necessary to monitor and manage not only the electrical load, but the lifecycle of their infrastructure. Put simply, utility companies must join the digital age if they are to support its demands. The transformation of the network can’t happen without the transformation of the company itself.

The premier network management tool of the digital age is the so-called “digital twin,” a 3D, geospatial model of the network, assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), that far outpaces the current legacy geographic information systems (GISs) used to keep track of network assets. The digital twin can not only keep up with assets in the network accurately, but it also shows in real-time the connectivity between those assets. Furthermore, a digital twin helps to gauge the potential impact of injected energy coming from external sources like solar and wind farms.

Instead of just knowing how many transformers and substations are in service, for instance, the digital twin lets the operator go much deeper. It keeps track of the whole network, from the production center up to each single connected consumer. It can also detail the capacity and efficiency of the network and, with the help of AI, predict the lifecycle of parts, schedule needed maintenance, and help design expansions. Everyone from high-level operators to workers in the field on mobile devices have the same common operating picture—a true, 24/7 real-time representation of the network.

Without investing in a digital twin of their network, utilities will continue to be half blind. They may have maps of the network, and maintenance and replacement schedules, but many of them rely on incomplete, and often inaccurate, information that relies on outdated paper processes. The bottom line is that an up-front investment in the latest digital twin technology will result in more-efficient and cost-effective operation of utility networks and guarantee an easier integration of the external factors such as EVs and other distributed external sources of energy.

Maximilian Weber is senior vice president of utilities & communications, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division.

SHARE this article