12 Jan 2023
by Eric Brown

Digitalisation – Essential for Energy System Transformation. But What About Communications? (Guest blog by Grid Scientific Limited)

Guest blog by Eric Brown, Director, Grid Scientific Limited.


Digitalisation – the use of data, computing, algorithms and advanced communications – is very strongly positioned as playing a critical role in energy system transformation.  

What is its potential? It spans the whole value chain: from helping deal with the yet unanswered question of how to operate an electricity network where renewables dominate generation and synchronous machines do not, through to enabling new value propositions, business models, approaches to regulation and new methods of engaging with consumers. It is expected to facilitate the integration of renewables, support the uptake of Low Carbon Technologies such as Electric Vehicles and heat pumps, release flexibility in demand and enable the operation of much more complex systems characterised by less deterministic behaviours. Over time the boundary between network and digital infrastructure will blur.   

In serving these functions, digital systems will attract risks such as cybersecurity-based threats, but the benefits in terms of new business opportunities, extraction of value from infrastructure and enabling lower carbon behaviours are believed to justify the need to find ways to manage such risks. 

There is high expectation and intense ambition. So much so that digitalisation rates its own “D” in the four Ds that provide a shorthand way of describing transformation of the energy system: Decarbonisation, Decentralisation, Digitalisation and Democratisation. But a fifth D should be added: Dependency. While digitalisation is a great enabler it also creates a reciprocal set of dependencies with energy and with electrification in particular, offering challenges that must be addressed. Today this dependency is often overlooked, with more attention on the promise and less on the risks.  

Digitalisation is starting to gain traction, but we are still in the foothills of realising a digitalised energy system. We need to get beyond the promise and into the hard task of making it work. A strong example of this is the communications infrastructure that provides the foundation for digitalisation.  

Energy system transformation depends on digitalisation and digitalisation depends on communications. Communications infrastructure and services will play an increasingly important role. 

The energy system will need more connectivity to enable more data to be captured and exchanged, more transactions to occur, more players to interact. This will scale from being measured in thousands to millions of instances. 

This connectivity will support many new uses and applications and will therefore have differing requirements when it comes to attributes like latency, bandwidth, utilisation, security, reliability, availability and quality.  

The deep reciprocal dependence between electricity and communications systems highlights the demand for a new level of resilience. This is true not only for normal operations but also for recovering from exceptional or emergency failure situations. Storm Arwen has illustrated this very clearly. 

It is also important to remember that the situation is not static; requirements will be changing over time as the transformation gathers pace. 

Today much is being taken for granted, but in the absence of explicit system level intervention, communications capabilities will not be available in the form, when or at a cost that will support and enable energy system transformation. 

There is a need to act to ensure that emerging energy system requirements are well understood, clearly articulated and made available to the communications community so that effective, timely response can be planned and implemented. This must be in the context of a systems view – including both both energy and communications – if this effort is to be as productive as it should be. This is a challenge rich in innovation opportunities. The two communities must work together to deliver what is required. It is important to address this challenge now. Without action the energy system transformation is at risk. 

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Eric Brown

Eric Brown

Director, Grid Scientific Limited

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