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Brussels Is Sprouting A Digital Grid For A Green Boom

There is plenty of uncertainty in Brussels this summer, the home to a number of European Union institutions. But one safe bet in the Belgian metropolis is that the lights will stay on.

That’s because the city’s electrical grid is using the Industrial Internet to get smarter. Sibelga, the company that operates the only distribution network in Brussels, will soon adopt GE’s PowerOn Advantage, a sophisticated software solution that controls electricity flows between the traditional grid and the consumer. The software runs on Predix, GE’s data and analytics platform.

By collecting and analyzing data about the gigantic mesh of wires and cables that keep Brussels humming, it will allow Sibelga to optimize power flows around the city, avoid outages and minimize waste.

This advanced distribution management system (ADMS) will be invaluable to Belgium as it braces for a boom in renewable energy generation. The country is aiming for renewables to account for 13 percent of energy consumption by 2020. “Renewables have helped to break the traditional top-down electricity model,” says Karim El Naggar, chief digital officer at GE Energy Connections. “The growing percentage of solar and wind in the mix means that more energy is flowing from the bottom up.”

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Brussels is home to a number of EU institutions, including its executive body, the European Commission (above). Images credit: Shutterstock

This inversion helps cut carbon emissions, but it also strains the power grid. Our electricity superhighways now need to handle smaller-scale plants that are feeding in power at various voltages, as well as manage power flows that are constantly changing direction.

The intermittence of renewables requires the grid to be a smart courier rather than purely a carrier. Sibelga, which is already one of Europe’s most reliable networks, is constantly fine-tuning power demand as more sources of renewable power are connected to the grid.

El Naggar says that PowerOn Advantage technology will bring a 30 percent reduction in customer minutes lost to outages compared with traditional distribution management systems. Large grid disruptions, when network constraints are close to breaching, generally result in the network dropping solar or wind farms. However, this software allows 20 percent more connections to remain online.

The technology also promises long-term financial benefits. A smarter grid doesn’t just improve the overall quality of power. It increases the lifetime of the cables and transformers that make up the grid, allowing operators to save millions on maintenance and repairs. Those millions can be reinvested to further shore up the grid or expand the network.  “We have taken a long-term view on the technology,” says François Chevalier, a manager of Network Control at Sibelga.

The ADMS is used across the grid, from the utility control room boss tracking the load curve to the engineer switching wires in the field. They’re not wasting time sifting through reams of data, either. “We’ve built the software in a way that allows the data to come to those who need it rather than them having to search for it,” El Naggar says.

Northern European weather is eternally unpredictable. The control room boss might receive a forecast for variable solar and wind generation over the next 24 hours. This would traditionally require constant reconfiguring of the grid to absorb the clean power safely and efficiently. The new software, however, optimizes this process by using historical information about similar days to ensure smooth operation.

The engineer working on the final mile of cable to the customer could also input data into a mobile device. The whole process is decentralized and requires collaborative control, El Naggar says.

Chevalier says that the software will seamlessly integrate with the company’s network. “We wanted to minimize the change to our business processes for the people using the new platform. We were confident that GE’s software allowed us to do this.”

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