CEO of RTE-International: Primary Reserves and Compliance with ENTSO-E Requirements among Success Factors for Integration of the Ukrainian Power System into the European Grid
An exclusive interview with CEO of RTE-International Nicolas Breham for the Interfax-Ukraine news agency
Question: RTE is a member of the ENTSO-E Project Group UA/MD. How do you assess the performance of the agreement on the conditions for the future interconnection with ENTSO-E by Ukrenergo and Moldelectrica?
Answer: ENTSO-E is the largest power network in the world. In order to aggregate all these networks into one, it is necessary to adhere to high standards of engineering, joint rules and such principles as transparency. Of course, our company has extensive experience in this process, and we will be happy to share our experience of integration into ENTSO-E.
Question: Have you already been acquainted with the power economy of Ukrenergo? To what extent does the company comply with the conditions for entering ENTSO-E according to the stated plan?
Answer: I am not familiar with all the details of the company’s activities, but I am sure that, with time, Ukrenergo will have everything necessary to integrate into the organisation on the basis of a developed roadmap and a list of steps that must be taken to acquire membership. We are convinced that as soon as Ukrenergo can fulfil all these conditions, they will be able to integrate.
One of the key issues and rules is the Primary Reserve, which constitutes an important component of the integration process into the network. Each country must make its own contribution to the reserve. This is a key achievement the attention is paid to in the course of the integration.
Question: Let us talk about projects in which RTE collaborates with Ukrenergo. There are three directions: digital substation, energy storage and live works. RTE is the first company to have built a full-fledged digital substation. How much time did this process take, and what is the estimated cost of the implemented project?
Answer: It took RTE a long time to develop the concept of a digital substation. Step by step, together with the developers, we managed to draw the components and elements of this substation. It took us ten years to accomplish the project. We also needed time to fully integrate it, since many things were prototype. Now, this process takes much less time because we already have layouts and designs.
The amount of time also depends on whether you are starting from scratch and this is a new project or it is a reconstruction of an existing substation. It is much easier to build a new digital substation than to upgrade an old one.
When you already have everything developed and built, you still need to put it into operation, integrate it into the environment to interact with old substations. This process also takes time.
Question: What benefits did RTE, as a transmission system operator, obtain from this project?
Answer: Speaking of benefits, the key is the developed control and protection system. As a rule, when you build a substation, you need to consider in detail the entire management infrastructure. When you build a digital substation, you have one management control and then everything is simple: copy – paste. It means that all this is already included in the design of the project, as secondary equipment.
The benefit is also the reliability of the system and its maintenance, since the repair works can be done remotely.
The power optimisation process of this substation is another key benefit. You have to deal with a large volume of data — power and amount of energy passing through a substation. You can optimise all of these processes.
And, of course, we speak about savings. When starting a project, we always carry out a preliminary assessment of how much we can save by using new infrastructure.
Question: Does your company plan to expand the experience of building and using digital substations?
Answer: Surely, this is very important, because one substation gives you some benefits. Still, the more of them work in parallel, the more profitable it will be for the whole country. Two digital substations will already be able to work together and optimise processes. When there are three substations, it is already the whole infrastructure. It means that the more the infrastructure grows, the more benefits you will obtain. This is another level of dispatch control.
France has a programme aimed at making all key substations digital by 2030. We are going on experimenting. The next level is a so-called “R-Space”, the level of the use of artificial intelligence to fully digitise all the information, protection and automation functions at a substation. In order to do this, you must first move it up to the digital level, and once you feel secure about it, you can continue the development in this direction. It is like the global Internet: first, we build the network, then we develop websites and then we add new features.
Question: Which other companies in Europe are working in this direction?
Answer: I believe all countries are thinking about it now. Upgrading the transmission systems is also a matter of interoperability. Most power manufacturers say their systems are interoperable. They are interoperable up to a certain level but it is necessary that they make changes and become completely interoperable. However, more or less large-scale networks are gradually “digitising”.
Operators in some countries want to immediately integrate new digital technologies However, most often, there is gradual movement in this direction. At the European level, we have discussions with many transmission system operators in order to have the common basis and framework for joint promotion and implementation of all these changes.
Question: What are the security risks of interventions in the operation of digital substations?
Answer: These risks always exist. Theoretically speaking, anyone can come to a substation with a weapon and destroy transformers. This is physical intervention.
With a fully digital system, if it is not reliably protected, this risk certainly persists too. It exists, but it is manageable.
Therefore, one of the key points in the development of digital substations is cybersecurity. It should be taken into account from the beginning of the development process. I mean the way you will make changes in the management and operation of facilities to be sure that no one can interfere with your system. As in Spiderman’s famous phrase, “With great strength comes great responsibility”. A new digital substation will give you many benefits, but it also assumes huge responsibility.
Question: If we speak in the context of direct cooperation in this direction with Ukrenergo, what services will RTE provide?
Answer: We are now cooperating with Ukrenergo in three areas. As for the project of energy storage, we conduct research. It is necessary to organise a lot of engineering work.
I can give an example of a proposal we have made in the Middle East. It consists in developing a new strategy and preparing the construction of a new digital substation with the key transmission system operator. We plan to help them with the development of all specifications for the digital substation. There would be a tender for choosing an equipment manufacturer and a construction organisation. We would also supervise the entire process of testing the systems until the moment when this substation is put into operation, and we would help them during the first years of operation. We are also discussing the process of adapting the substation at work, that is, developing new processes, optimising new maintenance and repair programmes.
We are discussing now such things with Ukrenergo. We look at how we can help, how we can be mutually beneficial for each other.
Question: What are the stages of the Ukrenergo energy storage project?
Answer: First, we need to perform a detailed feasibility study for this project. From a technical point of view, we need to confirm whether we can really integrate energy storage into the power network, and whether the current network can support this stream. We have to analyse possible problems with stability and power frequency. Next, based on this, we will think about the economy and the cost of the project. It is also necessary to conduct an environmental impact assessment. We should definitely take this into account. Then we can announce a tender and choose a contractor.
Question: Does RTE itself have energy storage?
Answer: Today in France and, I think, all over Europe, the discussions are taking place between the transmission system operators and regulators about energy storage systems. As you know, transmission companies are not allowed to have generation capacities. There are those who believe this is not a type of generation, but others think conversely that it is still power generation.
Now in France, as a transmission system operator, we don’t own storage capacities. We are negotiating with the regulator the possibility of building new storage facilities in various territories as pilot project. The main message we convey to the regulator is that we can use these objects without affecting the energy market. It will still be part of the business, in the form of virtual power lines. That is, you store energy where there is excess generation, and then use it when there is less generation while you store the same amount of energy in another place in the network in such a way the energy market is not affected.
Question: Can you name the weighted average cost of building 1 MW of energy storage?
Answer: If I am not mistaken, the order of magnitude for the battery itself (excluding the costs of connection) is EUR 600 thousand for a storage time of one hour. The cost depends on the duration of energy storage in batteries: the longer, the more expensive. And this is also part of the feasibility study, because you have to decide on what you need: storage for one or two hours, or a longer period. French existing projects deal with three such facilities, each with the capacity of 4 MW and a storage time of two hours, bringing the storage equipment part of the project close to EUR 9 million.
Question: Is there a tendency of reduction in the cost of such construction?
Answer: Sure. If we compare this, for example, with the cost of solar panels and wind power farms, they were very expensive 20 years ago, and now they are very cost-effective and profitable. If you look back over the past 20 years, no one expected that in 20 years the cost of solar panels or wind turbines would be affordable. The same applies to storage, because the price is already falling, and every time a forecast is developed, it is no longer correct, and after two years, it must be revised again. Naturally, nobody can any longer doubt that the price will go down. It is already moving downwards. The development and distribution of electric vehicles also affects this.
Question: The third area covers live works. How does RTE interact with Ukrenergo in this direction?
Answer: There are so many options for cooperation. For example, the establishment of a training centre to assist with staff training to carry out live works. It all depends on the needs and expectations of Ukrenergo in this area.
In the past, Ukraine had advanced experience in live works in Europe, but over time, this practice was partly lost. Now, the main idea for us is to cooperate with Ukrenergo in this area, to provide advanced knowledge of new technologies related to live works. We can develop training centres and training programmes together. By the way, it is necessary to take into account that works on lines and at substations mean two different things. When working on lines, it is important to know their voltage level. Because often, there is overvoltage in power networks. And this situation requires that we know how to manage it. For this, you need to upgrade the network, adapt the technique and rules. It is necessary to understand how the network behaves and what procedures need to be developed in order to learn how to work correctly.
Besides, live works require proper equipment. We can tell about the equipment we use, how to use it. We can come and help here, or we can invite Ukrenergo workers to our place to work with our team in France.
For our part, we have already assessed the expertise of Ukrenergo. This company will also teach us a lot and this cooperation will be mutually beneficial.
Question: Are these technologies exclusive or can they be created in Ukraine?
Answer: The technologies we use to conduct simulations on the network are available and known. If we talk about software that helps to simulate the system, then you need to learn how to use it, analyse the results and develop an electrical model. There is specific expertise we can share. Some of the tools we use in live works belong to RTE, some to suppliers.
Question: How widely are live works used? Is this a common practice, or, say, for some emergency cases?
Answer: Previously, the network in France was used at the maximum level in winter and less in summer. But then we saw massive air conditioning. That is, there were fewer opportunities to switch off the entire network to carry out repairs. Nowadays, live works have become common practice. Of course, in emergencies, this technology is also used.
And one more factor. Disconnection of the network and payment of penalties are very expensive. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out live works in order to maximise the availability and reliability of the smooth network operation.
Question: In France, nuclear plants account for a large share in the balance, but the share of renewable energy sources is also growing throughout the world. With the increase in RES share, are there any problems with balancing, and how do you solve them if any?
Answer: This is a challenge for everyone, believe me. You need to see a clear forecast of how much energy will be generated.
Question: And what is the margin of error in your predictions of “green” generation?
Answer: They are not as accurate as for classic energy sources, but they are becoming more and more precise. I cannot tell you specific figures now, but they are very useful for balancing the system. In addition, there are balancing mechanisms. Each company that generates and sell electricity is responsible for balancing its portfolio — production and consumption. If there is a difference between what was predicted for generation and consumption, then they pay for it. That is, every company with generation portfolio has an incentive to balance. All companies are very “balanced” in this direction to be sure that they will not have to pay anything additionally.
There are other directions. We developed a market mechanism in order to further adapt all balancing systems. This is the so-called adaptation market. For example, someone might work with demand or removal from demand to help to balance this portfolio. As a transmission system operator, we say that we will activate this option based on the margin price and you will need to balance consumption. This can also be done by those who have their own portfolio they can activate by themselves.
Question: What consumer groups are included in this balancing? Who cuts out when necessary or switches off?
Answer: A transmission system operator has this right. It can switch anybody on or off. This, however, takes place in case of an emergency.
Question: And if this is not an emergency?
Answer: We can ask someone to generate more to compensate for the lack of generation. Then we will use fines or sanctions imposed on the one that created the generation deficit to pay it.
Question: Who on the consumer side is involved in the demand management process?
Answer: There are usually two kinds of companies. This may be a direct company, or an aggregator, as we call it. That is, the one responsible for the aggregation of smaller market participants. For example, a big consumer, such as a glass factory with large furnaces. They can switch off for one hour because the furnace is already heated and there is enough temperature for the process. One hour is not a problem. The company will be glad that it will cease to consume electricity in excess, and they will also be paid for it. You can also cooperate with smaller consumers.
Another option is when you have your own energy reserves. If you give me money, and this is more than what it would cost me to use these reserves, then why not? This is a way to check how my reserve works. And you are also paid for this. Great, everyone is happy.
Of course, it seems not that simple at first. You should conclude agreements with many parties so that everything works smoothly. This is a slow process. However, gradually, year after year, more and more people are interested in such a mechanism. And we can attract more people to such works. All of these mechanisms help manage interruptions in the generation and consumption of electricity.