Editorial - VGB PowerTech Journal 6/2021

Digitalization as a technological enabler for the future energy system

At the beginning of this year, Clearly you have heard them before, the key terms of the digital world: big data, data mining and data lakes, smart meters and predictive maintenance, AI and cyber security, to name just a few. Some of the technologies behind them are already part of everyday life for many of us in the energy industry as concrete applications; for other technologies, the industry is still at the beginning of their use. What all technologies have in common is that they will play a decisive role in the future energy system.

In our White Paper „Being Part of the Future Energy System“ published in September 2020, we described how VGB PowerTech and its member companies envision the energy system of the future, what contributions we as operators of energy plants can make to shaping it, and what technological and regulatory framework conditions we believe are necessary to achieve this. One of the eight strategic fields of action was digitalization in the energy supply system.

The energy system of the future is characterized by the interaction of a wide variety of technologies and actors. Digitalization – that is information technology networking in the entire energy value creation process – makes it possible to efficiently manage this complex system. Data exchange forms the basis for networking energy systems with one another and organizing system operation holistically. Highly automated individual systems, with transparent operating data and intelligent information processes, are required.

Energy supply plants are classified as critical infrastructure and are therefore subject to special security requirements. The topic of IT security plays a particularly crucial role. The ongoing connection of control systems for plant instrumentation & control with corporate IT business processes is one of the main drivers for increasing demands being placed on IT security. Automation and control technology are coming more and more into the focus of cyber security. This is shown by a rising number of discovered security vulnerabilities and the appearance of specialized malware. The industry’s special requirements are specified in Europe, for example, in the corresponding Cyber Security Act. This contains the minimum standards for IT security as well as guidelines for risk assessment and the implementation of measures. The VGB-Standard “IT Security for Power Plants” supports operators to secure their plants against digital threats.

Digitalization is a key instrument for optimizing plant operations. The use of highly complex modeling, e.g. for weather forecasts or for combustion optimization – or artificial intelligence – e.g. for evaluating a plant fleet’s operating data– makes it possible to implement flexible operating concepts as well as predictive maintenance and repair. Systematic and uniform labelling of energy systems is the basis for efficient data management – VGB´s reference designation system for power plants RDS-PP and KKS offer the perfect basis for this.

The merging of many smaller, decentralized plants into a virtual power plant is another example of digitalization in the energy industry. Such systems can generate electricity from biogas, wind power, photovoltaic or hydropower plants, but also electricity consumers, electricity storage or Power-to-X plants.

In addition, digitalization is a prerequisite to the smoothly integration of different flexibility options in the energy system in order to to balance electricity supply and demand at any time. Flexibility is essentially guaranteed by the four options dispatchable generation, energy storage, power grids and demand side management (DSM). The more flexible an energy system, the better the integration of increasing shares of photovoltaic and wind. For example, certain technical requirements must be met to realize the potential of DSM, including the accurate measurement of electricity consumption and digitalized infrastructure for remotely controlling loads.

For VGB and its members, digitalization is the focus of their actions – above all because it is an important engine for technological developments and system optimization. VGB members, as plant operators, are aware of the responsibilities of operating system-critical infrastructure. Therefore, they take the topic of IT security very seriously. The future competitiveness of VGB members will depend all the more on their ability to generate added business value from the extensive data they have. This applies both to the efficiency of plant operation and to interaction with customers and other players in the energy sector.

P.S. Please allow me to add a note on my own behalf:
On the topic of digitization, we have recently developed several very successful event formats that have started the next round this year. These include, for example, the VGB digi-Day, the digitalization workshops for wind energy and hydropower (14 September 2021) as well as the series of events on IT security for energy plants (28 and 29 September 2021).