Review of power system simulation software tools

Power system simulation

Man at deskA power system simulation software models the behaviour of electrical networks, from low voltage distribution networks (typically 110 and 240 V) to very high voltage grids (up to 800 kV). They are mathematical models based on the electrical laws, offering a user interface specifically developed to represent networks equipment: substations, transformers, overhead lines, underground cables, generators, including renewable energy sources like wind farms and photovoltaic panels, circuit breakers, SVC, etc.

Large choice

DigSilentIt is difficult to know which are the most used in the world. Network simulation software developers do no publish the number of sold licences. Additionally, they propose different approaches and user interface functionalities, depending on their targeted clients. Utilities have different needs and objectives than consulting engineers or project developers, for instance. Different types of software are therefore available on the market. They all propose same kind of mathematical models (line and cable parameter calculation, load flow, neplanshort-circuit, stability, protection coordination, harmonics, etc.), but the user interface can be quite different.

etapAccording to my experience, the most used include Siemens PSS/E, Neplan, PowerFactory from DigSilent and ETAP. Other are EMTPEurostagCYMENAPPaladin DesignBase, CAPE, cymePowerWorldSimPow and Aspen, for instance. The list is not exhaustive and not ordered. Sorry for the ones that are not in the list. Feel free to add them by commenting this post.

In the past century

The first power system simulation software tools were developed in the 70’s. Some of them survive until today, going through punched cardsDOS, Windows 3.x, Windows 95 and subsequent versions, Fortran and procedural programming languages in general, floppy disksobject-oriented programming and now cloud computing and punch_cardprobabilistic methods. The most famous is certainly PSS/E, originally developed in the USA in 1976, now belonging to the German company Siemens, after being sold and transferred several times.

Thirty years ago, PSS/E reigned supreme amongst a few commercial available software tools. Many electrical engineers developed their own software tool too. Some of them evolved into commercial tools, increasing the number of PSS/E competitors. The majority remained in the office where they were created. The big majority of these tools, commercial or not, were developed in Fortran on DOS.

When Microsoft placed Windows 95 on the market in August 1995, some of the software developers made the effort to upgrade. The majority of them just added a windows user interface, without modifying the calculation modules. A minority took the opportunity to completely redesign their tools. New incomers also showed up with brand new tools. For instance, ETAP claims on its website that “in 1996 ETAP released the first, true 32-bit, power system analysis program on the market for Windows.” I am not sure it is true, but ETAP was surely amongst the Windows 95 pioneers in the power sector. But the real first-movers were the very few companies that developed windows user interfaces for such software on Windows 3.x, in the early 1990s.

mac_questionIt is interesting to note that all commercial power system simulation software tools are running on Microsoft Windows. None is running on MacOS. Is it a potential market for developers?

Tough competition

When the majority of power sector companies finally acquired Microsoft Windows in the late 1990s, early 2000s, software editors were forced to follow the move. PSS/E for instance released its first Windows version only in 2004, almost ten years after the release of Windows 95. And it was not a good one. Some data sets were still defined in per unit, for instance line characteristics (resistance, reactance, etc.). It is known that the power sector is conservative, but concerning IT, it is extremely conservative.

Now, commercial power system simulation software tools are modern and try to make the most of available IT technologies. In fact, natural selection catches up the others, the ones that didn’t evolve.

Better, but not good enough

psse_exportBut for the survivor, there is still room for improvement. The biggest problem for the user is data portability: it is a headache to export and import data between software. There is no standard exchange format. There were some attempt, but they all failed. Every company developed its own database and data organisation. In the best case, they propose import tools from competitors formats. But they are not working well, or they don’t work at all. I know that if power system simulation software editors will read this, they will claim it is not true. But as a user, and an experimented one, I feel comfortable writing it.

User interfaces also need makeover. Menus organisation is often absurd. I was also software developer, I know it is not an easy task, but they should put some effort on it. In a training session on one of these software tools, the trainer, an excellent senior employee working since many years for the editor, couldn’t find the menu activating a special functionality one of the trainee wanted to see. He had to ask several colleagues before finding one who knows where to find the right button on a windows one reaches after many clicks. Not to mention that it was not explained in the user documentation.

I will be nice. I will not show you screenshots showing how old fashion can be some interfaces.

Printing is apparently also a challenge for this type of software. If you succeed to get the font you want, the line thickness you want, the arrow size you want, on the paper size you want, all that at the same time, you are then sure that you are an expert user.

Last but not least, the price

pigI don’t know what is your opinion, but several ten thousands dollars for this kind of software is too much. I know the market is not so big, and they the number of sold licences is limited. But the price is a barrier to acquire more licences. I have seen many companies with one licence shared by several employees, only because it is too expensive to acquire one licence per employee. Declining prices are generally proposed when buying several licences, but the proposed discount is no a sufficient incentive. Opinion from software editors is here welcome to explain us their price strategy.

A quiet revolution 

To finish on a positive remark, let’s look at the progress we made. Forty years ago, it took about a minute for simulating a  medium-sized network, plus the time necessary to prepare the data in the right format in ASCII files. Now, it is possible to calculate hundreds of load flow simulations in a few seconds. And databases allow us to organise the data for us.

Gauthier Dupont
Dupont Energy Consulting GmbH

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Filling the power engineering skills gap

During the next decade, about half of power engineers in the United States are expected to retire

ieeeSeveral fund programs help educate the next generation of engineers. For instance:

  • The multimillion-dollar IEEE Power & Energy Society’s Scholarship Plus Initiative encourages undergrads to pursue careers in power engineering by awarding them scholarships and providing career experiences as undergraduates.

More on IEEE publication.

The Smart Grid is dead. Long live the ICET !

The term Smart Grid is too controversial, then forget it

Since years we didn’t succeed to properly define what the Smart Grid is. There is not agreement about its definition. I’ve started to collect some reference to illustrate here my point of view, but they are so numerous that it would be unfair to select just a few. Crawl on internet, read books, articles and blogs on the subject and you will observe it from your own eyes.

When a term is too difficult to define, it means that it does not correspond to something real. It is a vague concept, a dream, or a vision as I’ve personally defined in a previous post.

Why should we continue to use this fuzzy concept? Just drop it!

We should say ICET instead

One tendency is clear in the Smart Grid nebula: the concept always includes the use of Information & Communication Technologies (ICT) in the electricity sector (as defined in Wikipedia for instance). In fact it is more than that. The right word should be integration instead of use.

Let’s consider the communication system needed to allow Smart Meters to communicate with utilities’ control centres. Thank to Power Line Carriage (PLC) the same cable can be used to transmit electricity and information at the same time. If going wireless, utilities have to invest in GPRS/3G/4G (or similar technology) infrastructure, or to be a client (a big one) of a telecom Co.

If Smart Meters’ full capabilities are exploited, they have to continuously communicate with utilities’ control centre, exchanging huge amount of data. The need for communication is then so high that utilities and telecom Co’s will have a strong economic interest to develop intense synergies. On the long-term, synergies will lead to merger, then forming a company delivering both electricity and communication services (wireless and/or through electric cables). Integration of electricity into the ICT sector shall form the ICET sector, for Information, Communication & Electricity Technologies.

There is also another advantage of not using anymore the term Smart Grid: there will be no discussion anymore to know if a grid is dumb or smart. There are so many useless discussion about this. It is a shame to lose so much time in futile debates.

Prediction 

Electricity and information will flow in the same cable everywhere, like it is already the case with USB cables for instance. Internet connection will be ubiquitous not only thanks to wireless technologies like Wi-Fi, but also via electric cables. When you will plug your laptop in the wall socket, it will not only get electricity to recharge, but also an internet connection.

The owner of the socket will not charge you for internet, like he already doesn’t for charging your laptop. Today everybody has everywhere access to electricity (expect in poor region in developing countries). Tomorrow everybody will have everywhere access to internet (I hope even in poor region).

Call for support

I then propose that we all use the new acronym ICET instead of Smart Grid.

If you like the proposal, then do it. Don’t say anymore Smart Grid. And tell you colleagues and friends to do so.

If you disagree. Please explain us why. Feel free to comment.

Thank you all in advance for your active contribution to the debate.

Gauthier Dupont
Dupont Energy Consulting GmbH

Language usage revealing business trends

The name of the game

Google Books Ngram Viewer, launched in December 2010, displays a graph showing how phrases have occurred in a corpus of 5.2 million digitized books (about 4% of all books ever printed) from the 16th century until 2008. It is fun, but not only. It can reveal cultural trends, based on language usage. The Ngram of the words “nursery school”, “kindergarten” and “child care” given on google website is a good example.

Originally, the name n-gram comes from a model sequence used in statistic since 60 years. The concept is not new, but internet capabilities give it a second go.

The game of the name

Now, just try it. Type words and look at the curve. A plethora of website already exploited the tool, just for fun or for scientific purposes.

A hint before playing with it: Ngram is case-sensitive. For instance, one get more hits when the words “facebook” and “google” are written with a capital letter. In “When OCR Goes Bad: Google’s Ngram Viewer & The F-Word“, other issues concerning the limits of the model are addressed.

To be sure we can use Google Ngram with confidence, my scientific education recall me we have first to check that the model correctly depicts language usage. One simple idea to do it: let’s look at the Ngram of the most common words. A priori, the curves shall be relatively flat (see next figure). Most of them are, but some aren’t!

I am not a native english speaker, nor a linguist. But I think it can be explained why the occurrence of the words “the” and “of” decreases. Look at next figure for instance. I let you do the rest of the job by yourself.

So, we have (more or less) checked the model. Now, we can start using it.

Ngram usage for business

My intention here is to show some examples how Google Ngram can be utilized to improve business and marketing analysis. The method is based on following axioms:

  1. Google Ngram model correctly depicts language usage.
  2. Language and culture strongly influence each other.
  3. Culture and business are strongly related.
  4. The Ngram occurrence of the name of a company is proportional to its business visibility.
  5. Ngram helps marketers to choose the right word among synonyms.

Maybe these axioms are not always true, or not completely true. But let’s imagine they are and let’s see then what it implies.

Note that visibility can be negative or positive. Ngram does not make any difference between the two.

Example 1 – The rise of Goldman Sachs

Next figure shows that occurrence of names of top consulting firms increases to peak between 2001 and 2006. On the contrary, the occurrence of the words “Goldman Sachs” made an outstanding leap in 2008. Can it be interpreted as the rise of the investment management firm, which succeeded to take over the political power in some European countries?

Example 2 – Microsoft

Following figure shows the occurrence of the word “Microsoft” along with its share price on the stock market. The two curves present a similar pattern, both indicating the slowdown of Microsoft.

The comparison with Google and Facebook displayed on next figure completes the analysis. But one has to mention that Microsoft still leads the race. How much longer? It is a shame Google Ngram data is available only until 2008. Else we would have a better overview. Note that in 2008 the word “IBM” was still more frequently used in books than “Facebook”. It is today certainly not the case anymore.

Example 3 – The fleeting NetPC

In 1996, I attended a conference on NetPC, a PC without local storage devices. We were told it was the future. It didn’t happen, as following Ngram tragically demonstrates.

Example 4 – Be smart: write “smart”!

Words play a major role in marketing. Google NGram helps marketers to choose them.

In the electricity sector, the term “smart grid” is excessively used. Nobody knows neither what it means exactly, nor where it comes from. Did you ever heard of a dumb grid before? It doesn’t matter. Every company active in the electricity sector is now widely using it. But it is no accident that the word “smart” was used. The trend was already there. According to the following Ngram It was top-notch to use “smart grid”, instead of “intelligent grid” or “clever grid”. Why not “cunning grid” or “ingenious grid”?

This Ngram reveals us a more global fashion: do not hesitate to use the words “intelligent”, “smart” and other synonyms. They are really trendy since 2000. Look at the number of companies and products using the word “smart”: smartphone, Smartbook (not a success story), SmartBank, SmartLaw, Smart Client Software Factory from Microsoft, SmartFuel, SmartCellar, SmartDivorce (they dare it!), smart bomb (is it anything smart concerning bombs?), etc.

Type “smart” in Google or Bing, you get two times more hits than for “Obama”. Vote “smart”!

A last one before leaving

I let you meditate upon the next Ngram. Chicken or egg?

There is no moral of the story 

I don’t try to pretend that the examples demonstrate any general theory. But many curves produced with Ngram, like the previous ones, trigger off a “I knew it!” Indeed, many Ngram confirm what many of us already know. But sometime they don’t. There is clearly something in it, but what exactly?

Gauthier Dupont
Dupont Energy Consulting GmbH

Smarter smart meters from Belgium

Belgium innovates

On 1st of March the Belgian utilities Electrabel launched in collaboration with fifthplay a new kind of smart meters. The basic idea is simple, but great and innovative. The proposed system enables end consumers to individually monitor, visualize, analyze and control the consumption of their electrical devices. Compared to common smart meters, which measure the total household consumption, it creates real added value.It is not strictly speaking a smart meter because it does not

replace the existing meter (analog or digital); it does not meter total household consumption and measures cannot be used for invoices. Functionally it is a domotic installation. But its use is smart grid and energy efficiency oriented. As it smartly meters consumer’s consumption, it deserves the title.

Electrabel is the historical utilities in Belgium, now part of the french holding GDF Suez.

Fifthplay is a tech co fully owned by Niko Group, a Belgian holding owned by the family De Backer. The original company Niko founded in 1919 and led today by the third generation is specialized in domotic solutions.

A new kind of smart meter

The design is nice and actual. Inspired by Apple? Anyway, it’s a good reference.

Gateway

The system includes:

  • Smart energy plugs
  • An internet gateway
  • A web application (for computer, tablet and smartphone).

This video clearly explains the concept, in French, sorry. Or check this one, in Flemish, if you prefer. Some info in English can be found here. More videos in French and Flemish here.

Smart Energy Plug

Smart energy plugs placed between the wall socket and the plug measure the consumption of individual electrical devices. Measurements are wirelessly sent to the internet gateway, which stores info and send it periodically to a remote server via internet (every 15 min). Through a web application or App, the end consumer can then:

  • Remotely monitor real-time consumption (15 min)
  • Program smart energy plugs (timer)
  • Remotely switch on and off smart energy plugs
  • Receive a warning via sms or e-mail in case of a sudden, unforeseen change in consumption.

An expensive gadget

Nice new tech, isn’t it? Now let’s look at economics of energy efficiency devices: investment and savings.

Investments. Electrabel is offering the Smart Energy Box at €139. Throughout the launch month of March 2012, customers will benefit from an introductory discount of €30. Add €3.50 for monthly subscription, i.e. €42 per year. Given a 3 years amortization of the initial capital investment, with the discount, and an average tariff of €0.18, one should save 435 kWh per year to cover the investment, plus the own consumption of the system, i.e. 10 to 20% of the yearly consumption of a benchmark family in Belgium. That’s quite a lot.

Savings. Marketers pretend that thanks to the tool end consumer can control and manage his own energy consumption. We all already do it without tools: we switch on and off when needed. One should neither be a genius nor being advised by a computer to know that consumption is reduced by switching off the light in an unoccupied room. I have no idea neither how much savings one can achieve thanks to the new tool, nor how to estimate them. do you? But I can tell it is peanut compared to the investment.

Market opportunity

The tools look great and functionalities are attractive. But fifthplay is not alone on the market. For instance Ijenko is proposing a similar solution, even broader as it includes also heating systems and security (smoke, motion and doors/windows opening/closing detectors).

Fifthplay’s long-term agreement with Electrabel is of course a good move to secure a big share of the Belgian market, to gather experience and a strong reference. But the international market is open and moving. Necessary technologies are not new and competitors would encounter no issue to develop similar devices. it will be a tough competitive market.

Not to mention there are cheaper solutions that can help you to optimize your electricity consumption (but without internet remote control): standby savers combined with power consumption data loggers offer a cheaper solution, without monthly subscription.

Prediction

Many similar solutions will shortly appear on the market (this prediction is an easy one: it is already the case). Marketers will pretend this is the new tool you need, that you will save money on your consumption bill. Journalists will be enthusiastic.

Few people like me will explain that it is too expensive and it doesn’t worth the investment. We will be criticized, for sure. Here, I hope. I would like to read your opinion. Do not hesitate to comment.

But at the end, it will end like smart meters today: far away from the foreseen success. Not so many end consumers will acquire the system. Enough to officially mention it is not a failure, but not enough to revolutionize the way we live. Criticisms will be voiced. For instance, that it inundates our house with even more wireless com, raising real or fanciful health issues. Until then, first movers companies will gain enough earning not to lose everything (pioneer advantage). Some will even make good money. But followers will lose, except the cheapest ones who will supply the tail of the life-cycle pattern (Growth-Slump-Maturity Pattern, see for instance chapter 14 of the book Marketing Management).

Finally, such tools will gently survive on the market thanks to tech fans not looking at economics. And tech companies will come with a new tool you and me cannot live without. The same story again…

Gauthier Dupont
Dupont Energy Consulting GmbH

The price to phase out nuclear power

Bold political decision

On March 15th, 2011, Germany halted operations at eight of its oldest nuclear reactors. Two months later Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the end of the country’s nuclear program: All of the country’s reactors will shut down by 2022. As a direct consequence, the utility company Mainova supplying the City of Frankfurt am Main will raise its kWh tariff by 9% on March 1st, 2012.

Globally, many welcome the decision to definitively phase out nuclear energy. And Germany is well prepared. German’s companies are amongst the world leader in renewable energies (in particular wind, waste-to-energy, and to a less extent photovoltaic). Relation with Gazprom is excellent (just ask former German’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder). Siemens and others are ready to build more gas and coal fired power plants.

I am not worried about the sector ability to massively build new plants of any type, or about any energy shortage. It is highly unlikely to see any load shedding in Germany for the next decades. The issue is elsewhere.

Bold, that is all well and good, but it is also expensive

It’s not a mystery. Phasing ou nuclear power plant will turn to be a quite big financial drain. There is no miracle. Offshore wind farm investments are enormous. Not only the wind turbines have to be built, but also the transmission network necessary to transfer the power from windy areas to big load centers.

The price of natural gas will certainly continue to rise (just ask former German’s Chancellor Gerhard Schröder).

Big investments added to higher operation and maintenance costs is not a light recipe for our energy bills. They wilt get fatter.

The bill? No, thanks

Who will pay for it? You and me of course! End consumers, at the end of the commercial chain, are always there to cover costs increases. The impact is often hidden, in taxes or in eroded quality for instance. But in my case, it is quite straightforward and visible. 9% increase.

In a typical formal letter nobody likes to receive in his mailbox, Mainova gently explains “network use costs cover the maintenance of the existing network and to finance further network developments to enable, among other things, power transmission from wind farm to the consumers.” They continue, “we do whatever we can to maintain the price as low as possible”. Hum? Then further empty promises. And finally, bang! 9% increase. From 0.23 to 0.25 EUR/kWh. 0,02 EUR/kWh only for network development related to nuclear phase out. I can’t wait for the day they will ask us to pay for nuclear power plant decommissioning.

Electricity in Germany was already high compared to other countries. Now it beats the world record. Next time you come in Germany, you will think twice before turning on the light.

Welcome in the new world free of nuclear power. It’s just a matter of bold politic… and of ordinary people forced to pay for it.

The bill? Yes, please

To be honest, I do agree with this strategy. Less nuclear, more renewable energies is a good move. I just wanted to warn you it has a cost. And we have to pay for it. I am personally ready to do so. Do you?