The Engineer: How AI can help free grid capacity


Taco Engelaar, Senior Vice President at Neara, explains how AI and digital line rating can help unlock latent grid capacity and speed up the energy transition.

Thanks to record temperatures, an increase in extreme weather events and fresh scrutiny on both net zero policy and energy security, the pressure on Europe’s clean energy transition has ratcheted up to a new level this year. Onboarding more renewable energy remains one of the most urgent and essential priorities. Yet despite a surplus of available clean energy solutions, many are left waiting to join the grid due to a lack of capacity within existing infrastructure. There are over 200 GW of clean energy projects ready and waiting to join the grid in the UK alone.

Putting significant investment into building brand new infrastructure, and innovative energy storage solutions, is widely regarded as the main solution to this backlog. But we mustn’t overlook the potential of existing infrastructure to help accelerate the move to renewables.

Advances in new technologies such as digital modelling and AI are uncovering significant latent capacity within the power lines we already have. This means there is potential to begin safely connecting to more renewable energy, sooner. By harnessing these technologies, and the power of our existing infrastructure, we can fast-track the clean energy transition without reinventing the grid.

Unlocking latent capacity

Latent capacity is hiding in plain sight within our existing infrastructure; the challenge is finding it and defining the circumstances where it is safe to use. Traditional line rating methods that evaluate capacity usage are still largely manual: with individual engineers being sent out into the field to painstakingly record, compile and analyse data from each stretch of the network. This is an incredibly time and labour-intensive process that is costly to undertake and cannot provide the level of detail or visibility needed to accurately assess true capacity across an entire several-thousand-kilometre-long network.

Utilities have traditionally, quite rightly, erred on the side of caution to avoid the risk of overloading lines with potentially dangerous levels of current, as well as downstream clearance risks. As a result, many utility networks have been unable to reap the benefits of abundant clean energy projects because the conservative approach leaves little room for new energy integration. This means that many clean energy projects that are otherwise ready to go may be shelved or put on hold, due to lack of confidence as to whether capacity for them to be safely activated exists.

Digital modelling, AI and machine learning technologies are helping change this by providing engineers with the tools to conduct line rating analyses digitally, instead of in the field, and to scale the analysis from individual lines to assess the entire network. Multiple sources – including LiDAR, geospatial and cloud point data – can be more efficiently and effectively combined to create clearer and more accurate network visibility at speed. This means that utilities can conduct line rating analyses in a fraction of the time, identifying even small pockets of available capacity that, in aggregate, can move the needle on the energy transition.

There are still limits to how much energy utilities can run at once, but instead of applying a crude, conservative standard to the entire network, technology can now help utilities to implement standards at a line-by-line level which offers critical flexibility.

Using digital line rating to uncover network capacity at scale

At Neara, we’ve seen these results in action. Essential Energy, a New South Wales utility that provides electricity to nearly a million people, found that they could double the capacity of their existing infrastructure after carrying out digital line rating using our network model. Elsewhere, in a fast-growing area of Texas, we conducted a study in partnership with EMPACT Engineering which found that 94.5% of the region’s power lines could safely hold double the existing capacity.

These are just two early examples of such technology in practice — there is a staggering opportunity for digital line rating to carry substantial clean energy progress on a global scale.

It’s a solution already within our grasp. Technology can provide the visibility needed for us to more accurately assess the health and capacity of our existing infrastructure, making it possible to harness the grid’s full potential and fast-track the onboarding of renewable energies. This is key to accelerating the clean energy transition. To move forward on the path to net zero, we must first recognize the power of existing infrastructure to help get us there.


Read the article on The Engineer website.

Taco Engelaar is Senior Vice President at Neara

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