IIoT and the keys to actualizing the decentralized energy revolution – Part 1 of 3
May 6, 2020

John Camilleri

Innovations in power generation, storage, and transmission technologies are forcing a shift away from centralized power generation towards a distributed, decentralized model. Utility operations are presented with new challenges related to security and controls; how they respond will shape the future of the decentralized energy landscape. This 3-part series will investigate the potential applications of distributed systems, as well as the role of interoperability in actualizing the decentralized energy revolution.

Growing penetration of renewable devices and inverter-based controls are driving a need for intelligence at the grid edge. Active management will be required to fully leverage the distributed power technology of the future, with increased telemetry data and low latency coordination between devices, enabling bi-directional power flow.

Apps at the edge

The ‘grid edge’ refers to the electrical distribution network down to devices in the field and represents a wide array of technologies and operational requirements. Today, the edge includes a growing number of software applications supporting various functions – think of mobile apps for the power grid, and you will see we are on the precipice of a revolution.

Intelligence at the edge spans the range of simple to complex functions that can optimize and analyze data and perform command and control. This is the role of the app.

With the deployment of more advanced devices such as battery management systems, controllable loads, and non-dispatchable generation, coordination and optimization of these resources in the field are critical to achieving the balance of analytics in a centralized operation center vs. real-time telemetry and control in the field.

Advantages and challenges of decentralization

With a centralized solution, the volume of data being collected produces latencies that are not conducive for implementing certain levels of control and operation in the field. Security in centralized systems may be more familiar, but it does not necessarily offer more security than a distributed system. Data in motion, from the field, still needs to be secured. The endpoint, where the data is collected, is typically a difficult-to-secure IT device in a centralized deployment scheme. Access control for such endpoints is typically generalized for a team to work on without specific identities being enforced. Endpoint devices have rudimentary authorization models – if they exist at all.

Forcing a distributed approach is an opportunity to drive better security controls and conform to modern best practices for both cyber and physical security. Clearly, there are security controls and processes that can and should be implemented. In general, the utility operations IT environment is running on borrowed time regarding cybersecurity measures in the field.

Distributed systems come with a host of challenges. The sheer number of instances increases the administrative requirements for deployments and updates. Securing these distributed services requires a systematic approach. The drive for distributed systems pushes the level of interoperability between systems, plug and integrate approaches, and rethinking the application space.

A modern grid recognizes all stakeholders

Although distributed systems present their own challenges, there is an opportunity to leverage modern software deployment and management approaches to create a significant advancement that will enable the general public to be part of the decentralized energy revolution. Kickstarting the market by articulating business value and finding the right nexus of industry players is the key business challenge. In the next installment of this series, I will address several potential applications of distributed systems of this nature.

To read Part 2 of this series which looks into real-world applications of a distributed system approach, click here.