"We Automate Grid Expansion Using Robotic Process Automation"

Expert Interview – April 21, 2023

René Lenzin is Head News, Media and Public Affairs at Swiss utility BKW AG

The energy transition comes with many challenges for utilities – Swiss companies are no exception. The Swiss BKW AG reacted early by introducing a “three-pillar-strategy”, establishing an extensive service business in addition to its energy and power grid businesses. The company is currently a driving force behind the digitalization of power grids, installing 400,000 smart meters and accelerating grid expansion tasks and grid connections with the help of artificial intelligence.

Interview with René Lenzin, Head News, Media and Public Affairs at Swiss utility BKW AG.

BKW AG supports consumers in the energy transition, among other things with energy management systems and smart home applications.

Mr. Lenzin, what challenges are utilities facing in Switzerland?

Switzerland has around 600 utility companies with different circumstances and challenges. They range from trans-regional utilities with their own electricity and heat production to rural grids with no production of their own. When it comes to supply security, Switzerland has the particular problem of the “winter gap”, which refers to the need for energy imports in the winter months. Given our growing demand for electricity and the lack of an energy agreement with the EU, this challenge will only intensify in the coming years. Until recently, utilities with large production capacities were confronted with low market prices, sometimes even lower than production costs. Utilities with no own production, on the other hand, have had to contend with volatile and sometimes very high prices since the late fall of 2021.

What did your company do in response to these challenges?

BKW responded to the low electricity prices in the winter of 2012/2013 with a new strategy: Alongside our established business in the areas of energy and power grids, we have built up a service business as a third pillar. This “three-pillar-strategy” has given us the necessary robustness and resilience to weather the energy crisis and the turbulences in the energy markets. The company is now in an excellent position to face the future. BKW is investing in the deployment of renewable sources of energy, preparing its grid for the new energy world, and is planning and building energy-efficient buildings and resource-conserving infrastructures.

Can you name some lighthouse projects?

Our extensive business model with its three pillars of energy, power grids and services clearly differentiates us from most utility companies in Switzerland. BKW actually has lighthouse projects in all the three business areas. One of them is BelpmoosSolar, the largest ground-mounted system in Switzerland to date, which we are planning in collaboration with Bern Airport. As Switzerland’s largest distribution grid operator, BKW is also a driving force behind the digitalization of the power grid. In the next few years, more than 400,000 smart meters are going to be installed. That’s almost 500 devices per day! The company is also planning to construct sustainable buildings, such as EDGE ElbSide in Hamburg, a low-consumption building powered by renewable sources of energy.

BKW also offers something called Home Energy. What is that?

Home Energy is a modular energy system intended for private homeowners. Modular means that each customer can arrange the energy system according to their needs and add more elements later. The modules include solar installations, heat pumps, electricity storage systems, charging stations and energy management. Customers are currently most interested in having their own solar installation. BKW advises customers about the products, ensures technical feasibility, creates plans and constructs installations in collaboration with its affiliates – complete with grid connection.

How are grid expansion and digitalization coming along in Switzerland – and how does Switzerland compare to Germany?

The challenges and regulatory environment for distribution grids are very similar in both countries. However, Germany faces the challenge of transmitting the large amounts of wind energy produced in the north to the consumption centers in the south via a transmission system. The energy transition requires a massive grid expansion everywhere. For the basic scenario in Switzerland, the Swiss Federal Office of Energy expects around 30 billion CHF in expansion costs – that’s a 70 percent increase in the amount of investments made each year. The regulations need to be adjusted in order to enable a rapid and cost-efficient grid expansion.

What’s more, the coordinated interaction of all players involved in the energy system and its digitalization are indispensable for the energy transition.

That’s true. Customers influence the need for grid expansion through their individual behavior. This is why controllable PV production, storage and building automation are among the major levers. However, the digitalization of the grid infrastructure is just as important. BKW is a leader in this area. We are able to automate grid expansion thanks to high data quality, artificial intelligence and genetic algorithms using robotic process automation, which ensures that requests for grid connections are processed quickly. It also uses artificial intelligence for various types of analysis, such as analyses related to power line inspections.

You founded the start-up company Energy Solutions. What for?

At the end of 2019, BKW and LTB Leitungsbau GmbH took over one of Germany’s top four companies in power line construction. This acquisition laid the foundation for BKW Infra Services Europa SE as a full-service provider in the German and Austrian energy markets. BKW Energy Solutions GmbH makes an important contribution to planning and constructing switchgears and other systems for the high-voltage grid, such as storage and offsetting systems.

You are going to exhibit at EM-Power Europe 2023. Why is this exhibition important to you and what can visitors expect at your booth?

This is the first time we will be participating with our own booth at EM-Power, and we have several reasons. As a strategic focus, BKW has dedicated itself to the expansion of its power purchase agreement (PPA) portfolio. When it comes to traditional direct marketing, BKW has already made a name for itself. Now, we intend to become a large and reliable partner in the PPA area, too – up- as much as downstream. EM-Power is one of the major hubs for the PPA business because it’s the meeting point for the renewable industry. We will have country specialists and present customized solutions for PV system operators at our exhibition booth. Moreover, BKW will get the chance to showcase decades’ worth of expert knowledge on the marketing and optimization of flexible assets.

Thank you very much for talking with us today!

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