One of the more popular analogies used in describing how important some responsibilities are compared to others always goes along with the words “those on the front lines”. In grid operations, these people are saddled with the enormous responsibility of maintaining the balance between input and output. Despite the advances in grid operations and a steady move towards a more self-reliant and sustainable energy sector, the need for trusted operators is still relevant.
What Does a Grid Operator do?
A Grid Operator or System Operator is a manager that ensures the “reliable delivery of electricity to consumers, businesses and industry”. They are the grid managers who track operations from a set of computer consoles within a control centre. They spend most of their time making sure all grid systems function at optimum capacity. The need to anticipate and mitigate situations that could become potentially dangerous or costly is also part of their work purview.
Working as a Grid Operator means constantly improving skills using simulations to practice new situations and guaranteeing that they can quickly respond and restore safe power conditions to the grid in the event of a systems failure.
How DERs are Changing the Scope for Grid Operators.
When it comes to expanding grid operations through new energy sources or distributed energy sources (DERs), there are four main aspects:
- Enabling technologies like utility-scale batteries, EV smart charging and renewable mini-grids
- Business models like peer-to-peer electricity trading and pay-as-you-go models
- Market design such as net billing schemes and innovative ancillary services
- System operations that include the future role of grid operators, virtual power lines and co-operation between transmission and distribution system operators
The future roles of grid operators will have to consider the increase in responsibilities that reflect the need to use a higher number of DERs in grid systems.
DERs are small or medium-sized electricity-producing resources or controllable loads that are connected to a local distribution system. They include distributed generation such as solar panels, small scale energy storage and controllable loads like EVs and demand response.
The conventional scenario of grid networks has mainly been centralised. Their organisation revolves around energy generation, transmission and distribution, with the consumers pinned at the end of the supply chain. In recent years this system has gradually morphed into something toeing the line of a form of decentralised energy distribution. Consumers are becoming part of the process of energy generation, transmission and distribution, leaving grid operators with less of a clear-cut series of responsibilities.
Emerging distributed energy resources (DERs) like rooftop solar photovoltaic installations, micro wind turbines, smart home appliances and plug-in electric vehicles are becoming quite active in the energy grid networks. Add this to the new market players such as prosumers, aggregators and more informed consumers, and the result is a new era with new opportunities.
So, for the energy transition to be successful, grid operators will have to develop new incentives, adjust their current roles and adapt their operations to accommodate these new DERs.
Becoming a Grid Operator of the Future – Emerging Roles For Grid Operators
As DERs keep penetrating the existing energy grid networks, the predictability of traditional planning, transmission, and distribution could be negatively affected, creating some blindsides. This is why the conventional roles of grid operators need to change.
We can sum up the conventional roles of grid operators in:
- Connection and disconnection of DERs
- Planning, maintenance and management of networks
- Management of supply outages
- Energy billing
However, these grid operators could have access to the flexibility of DER integration for the benefit of the distribution grid and consumers alike. Here are a few roles they could take up with proper adaptation:
- With an appropriate regulatory framework, the grid operators could begin operating DERs
- They could act as neutral market facilitators, providing high-end price signals to the market players who own flexible assets
- They could take on an active role in system operations in addition to their network operations roles, procuring flexibility services such as voltage support and congestion management
- They could be in charge of peak load management through DERs
- They could provide reactive power support to TSOs
Conventional roles still play a considerable part in sustaining grid networks. Integrating these new roles will help with much-needed regulations and increase economic advantages for asset holders.
Regulatory Mechanisms That Could Help
Most of these regulations are still in their early stages of development and are given as a guideline more than anything else.
Two of such regulations are:
- Connection agreements for end consumers that are not firm – These are connection agreements that state that DSOs will reduce network fees during peak hours if consumers agree to have constrained power supply during that period.
- Bilateral flexibility contracts – In this sense, DER owners and operators agree to provide local system services like voltage control to the grid operators.
The new Responsibilities and Their Impact
These new responsibilities will significantly affect how power grids operate in the future, and we can highlight some key benefits:
- Increasing flexibility in distribution networks – Through this, grid operators could get flexibility services from assets that are already connected to their distribution network. Using these services will further help the integration of renewables into the distribution network. One advantage of this benefit is the extra revenue stream it introduces with the help of incentives which further improves the flexibility of the distribution network.
- Using DERs to avoid or reduce network investments – This allows the grid operators to have numerous options at their disposal during peak demand periods or periods of network congestion. They can decide between reinforcing the grid, offering non-firm access to their consumers or use the flexibility services provided by the DERs.
- Leveraging data to increase renewable energy penetration – Here, grid operators can play the role of the consumer data manager, collecting and storing data related to electricity consumption, billing and location, as well as types of DERs. These can then be used to better forecast demand which would help with better planning and distribution.
The potential impacts of these changes are projected to be immense. Grid operators are not necessarily a defunct part of grid operations but will have to leverage the new and the old to create a working framework for future operations.