The energy market has had rapid increases in demand that cannot be fulfilled with carbon-based fuels. It requires companies to use renewable energies such as solar and wind to keep up. What’s needed is an infrastructure at the edge that can expand while maintaining the grid’s integrity, according to Ricky Watts from Intel at the at the Fortinet OT Symposium, which was presented digitally on Aug. 31.
This is a real change of pace for an industry that has, in spite of the constant changes, been very fixed in its ways. “It’s a very rigid architecture and designed to delivery power reliably,” Watts said. “There have been changes, of course, but it’s really the same infrastructure as when it started 100 years ago.”
As the energy industry evolves, that stability and knowledge of what has worked can be beneficial, Watts said. The world and the ways energy is consumed may be changing, but the basic principles are not.
The challenge, however, is the shift from hydrocarbons, which are stable but have a major impact on the environment, to less stable energy sources such as solar and wind power. This is a tall order, particularly as energy demand might quadruple in the next few years thanks to things like the electric vehicle (EV) market, microgrids and data centers.
“The sun and wind are variable in terms of quality,” Watts said. “[We] need to make sure there’s a reliable grid and getting these unstable power sources in there efficiently.”
Five drivers and challenges for the new power grid
While the power grid needs to adapt and change, Watts said this presents a few challenges that need to be overcome. The five biggest are:
- Sustainability to reduce carbon emissions
- Distributed energy at the edge of the grid
- A secure and connected grid
- Dealing with the demand increase from transportation (particularly EVs)
- Appliance sprawl, which is about connecting more of these modern devices to the power grid as they come up.
It goes beyond those aspects, however, particularly as utilities try to get smarter. There’s a lot of data that could be unlocked by using artificial intelligence (AI).
“Almost everyone is aware that AI can access operational data, and people want to know what do we do with this data? How do we use it? The problem is, right now, it’s locked away in these devices,” Watts said.
Operational technology (OT) devices have been siloed off, and while there has been talk of converging OT with information technology (IT), that’s easier said than done. There are security concerns along with making sure the network is up to speed. More than anything, though, the power grid’s reliability has to remain stable throughout.
“You can’t afford to have instability in the power grid,” Watts said.
Utility-driven innovation and virtualization
New ideas and innovation come from different groups working together and sharing ideas with one another. This is another new step for many workers, who have historically been closed off from one another.
“It’s about working with the industry, building a coalition and driving collaboration and innovation,” Watts said.
Applying virtualization technologies for transformation will help provide next-generation solutions that can make devices smarter and more efficient. Virtualization, which might seem like a strange and nebulous concept, has been around for longer than most people think. Watts said its ability to connect and link ideas and technology together has enormous potential for the energy market.
“We’re moving this technology into the utility and grid market,” he said. “We’re leveraging everything that was built in the past and [have] created something very stable for a software-defined world.”
A cybersecure power grid is another concern, which Watts likened to a cat-and-mouse situation. “Things are always adapting and changing,” he said. “Someone is always coming up with something new. You need to be able to adapt as quickly as possible.”
He said virtual infrastructure managers can help with that because they’re designed to virtually patch and secure systems and improve operational efficiency.
More than anything, stability and consistency are critical for the energy market. The world needs and depends on that security. Any technology applied has to follow through on that basic principle. “You need to be able to create something that you can repeat over and over again, regardless of the location,” Watts said.
Even with that caveat, Watts is excited for the future of the energy industry, which, while different from what came before, will still provide the constant hum that powers the world. It just so happens it’ll be smarter, faster and more energy-efficient than what came before.
“In the next two to five years, the transformation of the energy industry is going to continue and accelerate and will end up creating a grid that will be set for the next 100 years.”
Chris Vavra, web content manager, CFE Media and Technology, firstname.lastname@example.org.