Utilities on the Edge: Powering Transformation with Grid Edge Intelligence

Written by Craig Preuss and Lindsey Spencer

Disruption is the only constant in today’s ever-changing energy landscape. Distributed Energy Resources (DER) are accelerating the transition from a single-direction, centralized electric grid towards a bi-directional, distributed grid faster than any of us ever imagined. The increased penetration of DER through advanced battery applications, electric vehicles and thousands of smart devices is highlighting the need to relocate digital intelligence to the “grid edge” to connect with the smart devices located there, whether it’s by pursuing a centralized, decentralized or hybrid approach. As the industry moves towards a smarter, more flexible and advanced grid, grid edge intelligence will become ever more critical. This article will dive into what utilities can do to better understand and prepare for a more interconnected grid infrastructure.


In today's world of complex energy administration, two things are clear. One is that the constant in our changing energy landscape is disruption, and the existence of a single-direction, centralized electric grid will soon become obsolete. The second is that, no matter how complex the concept of grid edge intelligence may be, it is not impossible.

Distributed energy resources (DER) have penetrated the operational framework of both large commercial applications and rooftop solar. At the same time, advanced battery applications along with the proliferation of smart devices and electric vehicles emphasize the reality that utility companies have a responsibility to manage all aspects of the grid from anywhere at any time.

It is not difficult to see that the need to move digital intelligence to the “grid edge” will only be intensified in the future. The requirement will be not only to connect with smart devices, but potentially even to identify and communicate with customer devices on the “other side of the meter.”

A bi-directional, distributed grid is the future, and the time when it will be needed is approaching at breakneck speed.

What exactly is the so-called “grid edge”? The term refers to the electric grid location in relation to its utility customers, and that “edge” is a variable boundary that depends on customer demographics and system topography, as well as on load profile and technology adoption. All these change over time. For example, because of the increased volume of work-from-home employment during COVID-19, we have seen substantial grid edge shifts in many locales.


Three Approaches to Smart Grid Operation

There is no doubt that grid architecture is complex, but intelligent solutions are even now available. They include a centralized intelligence approach, a distributed intelligence approach and a hybrid approach. Let's consider each one.

Centralized Intelligence: The basic format involves the use of simpler devices to talk to the headend through traditional poll response protocols like DNP3 (IEEE 1815). Reliable communications to the edge are required in order to boost the reliability of headend analytics, and the issues that surround missing, low-quality or late data must be solved. Headend analysis and response, based on early transmission of polled data, is typically more efficient and supplies better system insights than on-demand polling. The benefit is a higher degree of adaptable logic that will provide a smarter holistic system-wide view.

Distributed Intelligence: The use of more complex devices at the grid edge in conjunction with analytics and peer-to-peer communications can facilitate a faster rate of change and substantially improve reaction speed. Grid edge analytics may still be disrupted by the quality of the communication exchange, but even so, the data will be available on-demand. Edge analytics typically contain more hard-coded logic and reduced system perspective. Benefits of this option include speed, even if communications to the headend are compromised or cut. It is important that grid edge hardware is appropriate for its installation locations and using IEEE 1613 can improve confidence in ruggedness to survive the tough environment at the grid edge.

The Hybrid Approach: Just as you would imagine, employing both advanced distribution management solutions (ADMS) and grid edge intelligence may represent the ultimate solution. When the goal is to provide quality data that will drive decision-making, the means may be to balance the need for more oversight against the need for high initial investment. A distributed intelligence system with edge analytics still may need to transmit significant data to the headend, which results in a need for heavy bandwidth. A hybrid reporting system can be both faster and more efficient.


An Overview of Future Grid Edge Intelligence

We cannot consider the grid edge without looking at IT/OT convergence. Education is key, as we move to a field area network managed by a single team versus the multiple groups and technologies that exist today. We must take care to perfect the maintenance and troubleshooting protocols that apply on the distribution side, and to adapt utility processes and procedures so that they work with the ADMS and grid edge devices.

It is conceivable that a new and broader group of skillsets will be required, impacting utility line crews, operations and engineering teams, and control centers. The familiar refrain of "changing times" is nowhere more obvious than in the field of energy and utilities applications. We believe that this new environment will require new collaboration across a variety of fields, and we view this as a healthy development that will result in less rigid distinctions among those groups that hold critical responsibilities in the energy field.

Advanced communication networks are critical to enabling grid edge intelligence. They must be designed with the possibility of innovative future applications in mind. Today is not too early to consider such additions as gas devices, transmission devices or energy supply capability to the network. Utilities might be better able to prioritize their needs for the present by looking ahead to the future. By taking the initiative right now to confront "down the road" requirements, it may be possible to develop in advance the tools that will be needed later.

It may go without saying that cybersecurity is also a prime consideration for any grid edge strategy. It is also a sad fact that too many original equipment manufacturers still have not yet adopted cybersecurity measures that are common to IT systems -- simple concepts that include user controls, password controls, encryption and logging controls. We need a comprehensive OT commitment to security, and we need it now.


A Field View of the Grid Edge

As familiar as utilities are with large capital investment projects, there is little reason why grid edge intelligence cannot be applied in broad strokes to existing projects for the benefit of those organizations and their customers alike.

It is time, in our view, to consider how FLISR might benefit from additional grid intelligence. Utilities now can leverage information from customer meters through AMI or similar telemetry, and they can not only pinpoint which customers are without power during an outage, but also a specific cause of the outage.

It is exactly this kind of information that will lead to future improvements, and the time has come to capitalize on this potential and to improve it in every possible way.

It is the right time to begin to build the roadmap to the future.




This article edited by Jorge Martinez

For a downloadable copy of the August 2021 eNewsletter which includes this article, please visit the IEEE Smart Grid Resource Center.

Craig Preuss portrait photo
Craig Preuss has been working at or with utilities developing experience in distribution engineering, distribution planning, and utility automation for three decades. His projects range from the installation of intelligent grid devices on the grid edge, to end-to-end implementation and integration services involving substation automation, volt/VAR optimization, fault location isolation and service restoration, and cybersecurity that include technologies based on IEC 61850 and DNP3 (IEEE 1815). He is presently the chair of the Power System Communications and Cybersecurity Committee and active in many working groups and subcommittees of the Power System Relaying and Control Committee, both committees are in the IEEE Power and Energy Society.

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