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Big Data is coming to the utility industry

03 June 2018

As part of ENA’s Open Networks Project, Borsu Shahnavaz, Data Scientist, at UK Power Networks discusses the potential benefits of harnessing big data in the electricity industry.


“Big Data” is coming to the utility industry. We will soon see billions upon billions of data points every minute of every day through smart meters, smart chargers, electric vehicles, domestic batteries and more. Wherever you look, from healthcare to retail, finance to city planning, Big Data offers the opportunity to harness unparalleled business insight. But the question nobody seems to have answered yet is what is the potential benefit to the electricity industry?

Electricity networks have always handled vast amounts of data, but it not what you might call ‘Big Data’. What we are accustomed to is a plethora of relatively stable, structured data.  However, true ‘Big Data’ is a continual, high velocity flow of huge volumes of varied information, both structured and unstructured, to and from multiple sources. The question we and other businesses need to answer is what advantage this wealth of new information can provide.

To answer that question, we need to understand the veracity of the data and the potential value it holds.  Fundamentally, ‘Big Data’ in its raw form is worthless. Any associated benefit can only ever be realised where we have confidence in its quality, have the ability to rapidly amalgamate it and to then apply advanced analytical techniques that deliver insights. Only then can we facilitate better and faster decision making.

Distribution network operators including UK Power Networks face different challenges too. A retail chain can use data to gain insight into their customers’ shopping habits. The advent of technologies related to the Internet of Things, such as remote monitoring, is now shifting us towards the Big Data landscape too. How can immediate, on the fly, Big Data analysis benefit us? The answer is simple. The value is in new business insights. But insights are only valuable if they are acted upon.

UK Power Networks is currently undertaking a range of innovation projects which aim to utilise ‘Big Data’ to benefit our customers. Those benefits will be manifested by optimising how we develop and operate the electrical distribution network, maximising the potential capacity of our existing equipment and allowing us to be increasingly targeted in how, when and where we upgrade the network. This ultimately means lower costs for our customers by removing the need to spend money on traditional network ‘reinforcement’ ie building new cables and substations.

Examples of these projects include:

-        The Open Networks Project, a major initiative lead by Energy Networks Association (ENA). The industry-wide project is supporting the move from our traditional role as a Distribution Network Operator (DNO), delivering electricity from power plants to people’s homes, to a much more complex role as a Distribution System Operator (DSO) for a whole range of technologies that generate, consume and manage electricity. The volume and complexity of data that will be exchanged in this new environment will create the need for innovative approaches to data visualisation, synthesis and sharing. Analysing data the right way will enable us to interpret and act on the wealth of information that will be available to the DSO.

-        UK Power Networks’ major Ofgem-funded project called Active Response. The project is developing ground-breaking power electronic devices that will be controlled through advanced optimisation software, which processes millions of network data points. These devices and the associated analytical software will allow DSOs to optimise the use of existing assets by sharing network capacity in real-time. It will provide additional capacity out of our existing infrastructure in areas such as cities and commercial centres during the day and in suburbs and residential areas in the evenings and weekends. This project alone has the potential to save our customers more than £250m by 2030 in money we won’t have to spend on network reinforcement.

UK Power Networks’ Domestic Energy Storage and Control project, one element of which is exploring how we can use data from customers who have solar panels, battery storage and electric vehicles to create a ‘virtual power station’ to help boost network capacity at peak times. This can potentially alleviate pressure on local substations and transformers and defer the need for reinforcement. 

As well as presenting great opportunities, Big Data also poses potential risks.  We consider there to be five primary challenges posed by the rise of Big Data in the electricity industry:

Cyber Security: Accessing, utilising and providing multiple internal and external data streams increases risk to our network and control systems from hacks and invasive malware.

Social Acceptance: In order to attain and retain acceptance of the use of big data, it is paramount that customer privacy is maintained and the benefits to them are quantified and well articulated.

Data Quality: Data that may have been fit for purpose when collected or created, may not be so now.  Equally, where we receive data from external sources, we may have little or no control over its quality.  As with any form of analysis, data quality has the ability to compromise the effectiveness of Big Data analytics. 

Technical: Significant investment is needed in the IT infrastructure and applications that are required to ingest, integrate, store, analyse and publish the vast data streams that Big Data introduces.

Analytical: Individuals with the talent and skills required to manage, assimilate and utilise big data are a rare commodity.  Insourcing and upskilling is of the utmost importance.

In future, data analysts and engineers will need to work side-by-side to develop new solutions for future problems, and innovators will be required to come up with increasingly unique solutions for the electricity industry based on the application of big data. 

Big Data is no silver bullet that will transform our business overnight. It is however a source of endless potential benefits. Those benefits will be realised if the industry works tirelessly and collaboratively to identify and exploit those opportunities, taking the most valuable insights and, most importantly, acting upon them.

About us

Energy Networks Association (ENA) is the industry body representing the energy networks. Our members include every major electricity network operator in the UK. The electricity networks are at the heart of the energy transition. They directly employ more than 26,000 people in the UK, including 1,500 apprentices. They are spending and investing £33bn in our electricity grids over the coming years, to ensure safe, reliable and secure energy supplies for the millions of homes and businesses reliant on power every day.

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