The digital twin is one of the main topics of discussion about connected industry or industry 4.0. There are sectors where they are now not only a reality, but a key part of operations. Manufacturing uses digital twins in their day-to-day operations, helping to operate machinery, monitor material, predict behaviour, or plan tasks, using a virtual copy of the systems involved, and thus saving hundreds of field visits.
A digital twin is a virtual representation of systems that behave identically to the physical system, are fully synchronised in both directions, and can incorporate or feed AI systems for process optimisation. They are now not only a reality in some sector, but a key part of operations. Indeed, Gartner has included digital twins among this year’s most important technologies.
It is commonly thought that digital twins already existed with the simulation and SCADA systems developed by industrial companies, but it is important to understand that a digital twin actually goes much further than that.
We are not talking about simple 3D representations, but systems that behave identically to the physical system, which are fully synchronised in both directions, and that can also incorporate or feed AI systems to optimise processes.
Bearing in mind the former definition of a digital twin, we could say that the electricity sector has not yet got on board with the full potential of digital twins.
“Despite the huge impact in cost and efficiency of a digital twin for the electrical sector, the development and implementation of digital twins presents a number of complex challenges; challenges that utilities have been struggling with for years, and today’s technology can finally solve them”.
The need to integrate new elements into the grid such as electric vehicles, heat pumps or batteries, as well as distributed generation from prosumers with self-consumption facilities, creates a grid that is increasingly widespread and complex to connect to a digital twin. This results in increasingly “opaque” digital twins as we move from high voltage (where there is good visibility) to low voltage where operators are completely blind to what is happening in user domains.
The trend for connecting new elements of a Smart Grid, is based on the use of IoT technologies. These technologies, which present optimal scalability, cost and performance, do not however enjoy the reliability and robustness of those used by industrial protocols in other environments such as SCADA. If not properly addressed, this leads to inaccuracies in the digital twin as a representation of the physical setting. When it comes to the power grid, the smallest problem in data can lead to big errors for the business.
The Smart Grid value chain is complex and involves multiple actors, from energy producers, TSOs, DSOs, energy operators, to end users, etc. Each of these actors is usually wary of providing data outside their ecosystem for competitive, or even sometimes legal or regulatory reasons.
For many years, cybersecurity on the power grid has been key issue for electricity operators. They are increasingly at risk due to the opening up of their traditionally isolated grids, which are now connected to IT environments for efficiency purposes.
The digital twin “opens up” these connections, and if they do not have the strictest cybersecurity mechanisms in place, they will clearly pose a risk to continuity of service or even national security.
Thin Edge Computing, i.e. digital applications running as close as possible to physical operations, solves these problems. Its distributed nature, with the simple installation of thousands of lightweight nodes across the network, makes it easy to connect directly to sensors, switches and industrial equipment in the Smart Grid, and to process high-frequency, high-precision data without incurring the costs of a centralised system, in pursuit of a full and reliable digital twin.
By processing data locally at each point of the Smart Grid –production points, transmission and distribution substations, till consumption points – only the necessary information is shared, point by point and anonymously, with those external systems that need it. So, we can create hierarchies of information in the digital twin in a much more agile and flexible way.
Finally, Edge Computing and network hierarchies avoid having to open many information networks, thus increasing the security of digital twin deployment to maximum levels. Thin Edge architecture is closely aligned with the IEC-62443 standard, which is fast becoming the most widely-followed standard for guaranteeing cyber-secure IT/OT environments.
At Barbara, we are already deploying Thin Edge nodes at the different points of the Smart Grid, which not only allow bidirectional synchronisation of digital twins with the physical systems, but also the deployment of AI applications for automated business decisions, thus easing the pressure on operators. All this with an added cybersecurity layer that makes the solution scalable and certifiable in such a demanding environment as the electricity sector.
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