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The Growth of Renewables Calls for Scalable Approaches to OT System and Device Integration

Reports from U.S. agencies indicate the use of renewable energy continues to grow. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. consumed a record amount of renewable energy in 2020. In addition, renewable energy in the U.S. grew for a fifth consecutive year, accounting for 12% of the total U.S. energy consumption. It was the only source of U.S. energy consumption that increased from 2019 to 2020.

As further evidence of renewable energy growth, the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) agency reports approximately 67,000 utility-scale wind turbines in operation in the U.S. Roughly 3,000 utility-scale wind turbines are being added each year at more than 1,500 sites or farms.

While this is all good news for the environment, it complicates the jobs of the folks who are responsible for ensuring reliable and safe power as well as our path to a net-zero carbon future. “Connecting the dots is only half the challenge,” said Brad Harkavy, vice president, Product, Oracle Energy and Water. “Managing data is just as important as getting the plumbing right.”

Harkavy noted that the multiple point-to-point integrations complicate dataflow programming, create manual “impedance” matching between protocols standards (such as data formats, sequencing, meta-data, and quality codes), and result in a complex system of systems to manage, maintain, and orchestrate. To get ahead of all this complexity, Harkavy is seeing more utilities design and employ common, operational technology–centric integration software patterns like the operational technology message bus.

Platforms Must Evolve

Engineers and grid operators need platforms architected specifically to integrate the grid’s operational technology and help meet regulatory requirements. Current estimates indicate that not only will distributed energy resource (DER) generation grow to 387 GW by 2025, but the mix will also continue to diversify.

Along with consumer trends, regulation is playing an important role in the diversification of assets and the complexity of the grid. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 2222 enables DERs to participate in regional wholesale markets through aggregation. In other words, it allows several sources of distributed electricity to aggregate to satisfy minimum size and performance requirements that each may not be able to meet individually. The intent for this rule is to lay the groundwork for a more modern grid and to promote competition in electric markets—it hopefully will remove barriers preventing aggregate DERs from competing in regional markets.

What this all means for the grid engineers and operators who ensure safety, resiliency, and reliability is that their jobs are becoming increasingly complex. Every day, the number of devices and systems grow exponentially. Each type of device (such as DER, field sensor, or IoT device) and system (which includes ADMS, OMS, and SCADA) has its own data structure and communication protocol (such as DNP 3, OPC UA, ICCP, IEEE-2030.5). Every time a new device or system is added to the network, it gets exponentially more complicated to maintain and keep the grid running. Considering these trends, and laying the groundwork for the future, the question remains: how do we connect the dots and manage the growing amount of diverse data they bring?

Today’s and tomorrow’s requirements have evolved from those when our grid was originally designed—a centralized generation and distribution scenario when utilities were the only power producers, demand was captive, and one-way communications were needed. Compare that to contemporary demands of a complex distributed energy generation network in which there are multiple participants often requiring bi-directional communication and control. The needs of grid operation have evolved from those of traditional centralized generation and distribution scenarios (Figure 1) to the needs of complex distributed energy generation scenarios (Figure 2).

1. The grid was originally designed for centralized power generation and distribution when utilities were the only power producers, demand was captive, and one-way communications were needed. Courtesy: Oracle Energy and Water

2. Today’s grid must meet the demands of a complex distributed energy generation network in which there are multiple participants often requiring bi-directional communication and control. Courtesy: Oracle Energy and Water

Not only does today’s smart grid call for application platforms with flexibility and scalability—the number of devices being added to the grid grows daily—but they must enable a complex system of systems to communicate to manage, route, and exchange data in real time. More importantly, they must ensure successful automated grid operation, aid in visualizing the grid’s health, enable regulatory compliance, and protect life, equipment, and the environment. Essentially, this means they must be architected for operational technology (OT) of the grid and not just information technology (IT) of the back office.

An example of OT architecture can be seen in the Operational Technology Message Bus (OTMB) software pattern. The essential elements of an OTMB include:

  • Safety Prioritization. First and foremost, utility and industrial OT systems must protect life, equipment, and the environment. These are the systems that monitor and control industrial equipment, assets, processes, and events.
  • Ensure Reliability. Retail and commercial customers alike depend on their electrical services. This means that the grid must always work. This also means that there is no tolerance for the electrical grid going down because a single component, such as a server, fails.
  • Operationalize Real-time, Bi-directional Control. The interconnection of OT systems requires accommodating various protocols, data standards, latencies, and control requirements while ensuring reliability and the overall operation of the grid.
  • Support Lossy and Messy Radio Networks. The grid operates across thousands of miles in locations ranging from remote to noisy urban environments. Often, conditions are hostile to reliable communication. An OTMB must be able to manage very low bandwidths and high-latency lossy networks.
  • Support Legacy Equipment and Protocols. Utility systems and hardware can range from being the latest technology to decades old. An OTMB must support today’s systems as well as legacy equipment natively and allow for easy inclusion of custom proprietary protocols.
  • Respond to Regulatory Requirements. For example, here in the U.S., the North American Electric Reliability Corp. Critical Infrastructure Protection (NERC CIP) requirements prescribe quality and security standards for every grid infrastructure stakeholder. An OTMB needs to be compliant with NERC CIP requirements and help utilities to bridge the gap between secure (CIP compliant) and IT networks.

What Does an OTMB Look Like?

As illustrated in Figure 3, integrating devices and systems to a common middleware layer architected for operational technology simplifies managing the system of systems that make up today’s grid.

3. Integrating devices and systems to a common middleware layer architected for operational technology simplifies managing the system of systems that make up today’s grid. Courtesy: Oracle Energy and Water

Beyond simplifying the network model by eliminating many of the traditional point-to-point integrations we see today, architecting an OTMB eliminates the manual impedance of matching between protocol standards such as data formats, sequencing, meta-data, and quality codes, as well as enabling dataflow programming to automate data management and orchestration.

Newton-Evans notes on its blog: “The increasing complexity of today’s grid architecture and the challenges posed to IT/OT staffs to develop comprehensive systems that can meet current and likely regulatory requirements to safely and securely accommodate commercially-owned power generation assets is among the greatest challenges found in any sector of the nation’s industrial, commercial, government sectors. The need is paramount for a new generation of ADMS, AEMS, DERMS, SCADA/DCS. GIS and DRMS that are each based on open standards, configurable, scalable and capable of providing two-way telecommunications pathing.” An OTMB solves this need by creating a scalable framework that reduces maintenance, debugging, and data management complexity.

Future-proofed Systems

Fortunately, architectures like the OTMB are not only flexible and scalable, but they also add what Harkavy likes to call “future-proofing” to an enterprise. He pointed to customers who have supported legacy systems while adding new and varying types of integrations to their OTMBs as they have grown their systems from thousands to millions of data points over time as examples of scalable approaches to OT device and system integration organizations can take to manage a grid of ever-increasing complexity.

Most likely, we will see the continued growth of wind turbines, solar panels, and battery storage. Possibly, these assets will be built from newly created materials, and managed by technologies and applications that may not have even been invented yet. Certainly, the trends of more devices, data, and grid complexity will continue to grow as will the need for scalable architectures to simplify OT integration, and efficiently orchestrate data and processes.

Allison Salke is senior product marketing manager with Oracle Energy and Water.

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