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Automation: The Energy Transition’s Unsung Hero for Utilities

By Francesco Baccino
06-02-2023 | 4 min read

The rapid development of new technologies across the grid — from solar to electric vehicles (EV) to battery energy storage systems (BESS) — has led utilities to launch more pilot projects than ever before. Utilities are racing to learn how to reap the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of a wave of new innovations on behalf of customers. While pilots testing varying technologies may be small today, they will grow and connect to large projects in the future, and ultimately need to be integrated across the energy network.

Automation will be the key to making new technologies and capabilities work together on a massive scale.

Say, for example, a utility is ready to advance EV charging infrastructure and BESS pilots to large-scale deployment. The utility can save significant sums buying make-ready charging equipment, batteries, and transformers by negotiating among vendors and choosing preferred hardware. The utility needs to look out for its customers by keeping costs low, so the last thing it wants to do is sacrifice its flexibility negotiating for equipment.

However, this desire for flexibility on a project-by-project basis leads to a melting pot of different equipment from various vendors. Much of that equipment comes with separate controls from each original equipment manufacturer (OEM), leaving utilities with too many controllers, not enough integration, and complex operations. It can also require that utilities pay fees to several vendors on top of the cost of all the hardware.

Automation flexibility is the answer to this problem, with the goal of creating one platform that can seamlessly integrate projects across entire utility systems. This approach allows utilities to deploy one solution across those disparate parts to make the sum greater than the whole. Each technology in this model become part of the solution for a resilient grid of the future, and automation harmonizes them so they can work together in a coordinated way.

Flexible automation in the form of one controller that seamlessly integrates controls for all systems — solar farms, BESS and even legacy human-machine interfaces like a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system—is the right approach. As utility teams work to commission new projects built with new technologies, flexible automation makes it easier for them to execute seamlessly. 

Next-generation automation in action

Today’s utilities want automation to make operations less complex, more efficient, and more cost-effective, and the equipment the automation solution is controlling shouldn’t matter.

For example, a large 500-MW BESS might take up 50 acres with rows and rows of batteries in containers. But each container is an asset, and Hitachi Energy’s e-meshTM Automation brings each of those individual assets together to enable aggregated data collection, critical system insights and precise control.

That way, when an independent system operator or regional transmission organization calls for 10 MW of power, the utility has a controller that can call for that level of generation from the BESS instantly while considering the state of charge for individual batteries and recharge times that will be required.

Even as new generations of batteries are added to the system, including those from a different vendor or with a significant technology update, the e-mesh Automation solution is designed to be compatible with the hardware utilities add in the future. That makes automation an integration platform, not just a solution for one project or asset.

Why one of North America’s largest utilities chose Hitachi Energy

One of the largest utilities in North America, located in the southeast United States, plans to bring its first large-scale BESS online.

This utility is extremely focused on data collection and data quality related to asset performance and plans to add asset performance management software. For this reason, it also required a standardized automation solution for any future BESS additions. e-mesh can readily use the same asset profile as the asset management solution, which means the utility is in a great position from the start to implement in anticipation of future needs.

e-mesh Automation can:

  • Integrate with the utility’s preferred SCADA solution and other systems.
  • Meet the high bar for cybersecurity.
  • Be implemented swiftly and smoothly.
  • Evolve into a standardized approach for future BESS projects.

Because of those advantages, the utility plans to include e-mesh Automation for its BESS, thereby preserving flexibility and cost savings for ratepayers as technology continues to rapidly evolve in the future. 

    Francesco Baccino
    Global Product Specialist Grid Edge Solutions Automation


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