How a Digital Twin Can Help Developing the European Power Grid

Expert Interview – August 14, 2023

The European transmission and distribution grids urgently need to be expanded and modernized. Digital technologies play an important role in making the grid smarter and more efficient. A digital twin of the European power grid will help develop innovative solutions and coordinate investments. We asked Peter Vermaat, Secretary General EU DSO Entity how this works.

Interview with Peter Vermaat, EU DSO Entity, on developing the European power grid

If we look at the European power grids for the energy transition, in which areas is there a need for action? What are the top priorities you need to focus on?

To make the grid future proof, it is important that we expand the grid simply because we have more traffic on the grid through electrification. But we also need to change the system from a one way grid into a two way grid because most of the renewable resources will be injected into the grid at the distribution level, up to 70%. We need to anticipate a two-way system, including the facilitation of flexibility mechanisms. Therefore, we do not only need to expand the grid, but also to smarten it so as to enable consumers to play their part from the position in the grid.

That very much sounds like a technical issue in the first place?

Yes, I think there is a lot of technical issues involved. But as I said, we are not only distributing energy, we are also facilitating the market. From the regulation and the market signals and market development, it's important that we find new priorities and take good direction how, for instance, to facilitate flexibility to serve as a real market. The aim is, that we do not arrange everything through the grid technically, but also that the market and the prosumers can play their part and enable the integration of renewable sources in the future.

DSO Entity works together with ENTSO-E, the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity, to jointly develop a digital twin of the European power grid. Why do we need a digital twin and what is it?

The digital twin has been used very often as an example to illustrate the digitalization and especially the further operation of the grid in the future. The objective of digital twin is to improve the modeling of the grid so as to take better decisions on investments and on operation. In effect, it is simply a virtual representation of the grid. You can say a virtual model. It can have various levels of development like functionality levels or visibility levels or scope levels. And I think it's very important in the project we are now developing that we take a close look into the required functionality. We need to design the digital twin such that it can really serve the purposes that we try to serve with it and achieve the objectives defined by the European Commission.

So you're still in the early stages of planning. Once completed, which areas will the digital twin cover? Just the transmission grid or also the entire distribution grid?

That will also depend on the dimensions that we look at. In essence, it could cover all grid levels from TSO and DSO. However, I think we also need to take a close look on the required functionality and I can imagine that for TSOs having a cross-border European wide grid, it's very important that you model all cross-border lines and the main land lines in one model. For DSOs that have a more regional structure, it might be helpful to look for the right granularity. So perhaps it's not necessary to design a model for 250 million connections, but perhaps we can already serve the purposes that we have identified by having it on a more regional level, or to have a sort of modeling approach that allows for a stepwise development over time. I think for now we have a vision, but it needs to be further elaborated before we can give a clear definition of the final product.

If I imagine over 900 DSOs coming together and a lot of them coming from Germany, where we're very far behind when it comes, for example, to smart meters. How realistic is it really to get together this huge patchwork all over Europe and to get the data and the insights and the visibility?

Let's go back again to the definition of digital twin on that, because digital twin can focus on modeling the grid. Another definition would be that you also look at the layer of data exchange. So it's not a model only. It's also much related to the data exchange between TSO and DSO and between DSOs as such, also including the consumer and the market. So it's not necessary perhaps to have a fully covering model to cover all DSOs throughout Europe for 250 million consumers. But I think that, looking at relevant market areas or looking at relevant regional zones, you can already start with exchanging the relevant data and then perhaps through a stepwise development, you can look for next levels or next layers in the model. So a modular approach might be more appropriate for the DSOs there.

So it's not necessarily a real time data insight, but it's a model using comparative data, etcetera, where no real time data is available?

Yeah, to make it a bit complicated, I think both visions are right. The initial first step could be that it's not exactly real time, but that it is a modelling exercise that helps to take better decisions. A next level could be that it is real time so that you can take your operational decisions based on real time data and then another next level could be to make it predictive, right? So you can even use it to analyze scenarios. That is in fact what I mean with a modular approach, you can go various steps, grow the functionality of the model and expand also the scope of the model.

Now you mentioned three different levels. For example, what sort of timeline would you attach to each of these levels or the project?

That will also depend on the way we go forward with, for instance, the interaction with other European programs. You might be aware of the Horizon Europe Project schemes and, for instance. Apart from that, for the timeline, it’s also important to distinguish between the two tracks of the program. Perhaps I may elaborate on that because we have discussed the digital twin, but there is another track that is the development of smart grid indicators, and they are focused to design indicators that help DSOs and TSOs to take decisions to invest in the smartening of the grid. That's important because you can only build the fully functional digital twin if the grid itself is also smart. It needs to go in parallel, the development of the digital twin and the smartening of the grid.

So it's also an approach to see where investments are needed and to send it into the right direction.

Yes, exactly. And for that, especially the smart grid indicators are relevant. They will consist of a limited set and they will cover both input and output indicators. The input indicators will help to direct investments in the right direction and the output indicators will show the benefits of the smartening of the grid and therefore also deliver new input for the digital twin to be further developed.

What kind of benefits could we expect from the digital twin?

If you look to the benefits for the longer term, in fact there are five areas to cover. A very important area to cover is the observability of the grid. We also call it the visibility: What is going on in the grid and do we need to take any measure to compensate that?

Another important area to cover is the better decision making on investments not only when to invest in smartening of the grid, but also where. Because from the capacity utilization, we can better analyze the necessity of investments in certain regions. It's also helpful, third point, to be more resilient. Because, if we have better grid modeling, we can also better monitor and fight, for instance, cyber security attacks or if an attack occurs, restore quickly.

Fourth area would be that at the next level we can be active systems managers. If we have better visibility of the grid, we can operate the grid more efficiently. And lastly, not to forget, TSOs and DSOs need to interact very intensively on the data exchange to make sure that the grid as a whole, both at transmission level and distribution level, is stable, reliable and safe.

You mentioned smart grid indicators as a tool to channel investment in the right direction. How could the grid operators themselves profit from smart grid indicators?

The smart grid indicators are a helpful guide for investment decisions. But I think also that there is another area of interaction needed. That is the interaction with the regulator. So developing smart grid indicators is also very interactive with the regulator who needs to judge the efficiency of investments. Having a European wide limited set of indicators could help both DSOs and regulators to take control of their investments for the future.

This interview is an excerpt from an episode of The smarter E Podcast. You can listen to the full conversation here.

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