How we are addressing the challenges
So that we can continue to ensure the reliability of the electricity grid, we take measures to gain insight into the bottlenecks in capacity in the grid. We do everything we can to expand the network where the bottlenecks are occurring, as well as at locations where we anticipate that demand will increase in the future. We are also looking for opportunities to make even better use of the cables and installations that are already in place.
Improving our operational processes
In response to the increased workload and the shortage of technicians, we made various changes in our operational processes in 2019. These changes have enabled us to continue to improve our performance in terms of promptness, increasing productivity, and cost-awareness.
For example, in 2019 it became possible for us to draw up quotations for large-user connections (such as requests for connecting solar farms) digitally and send these directly to the customer, whereas this process originally involved numerous manual steps and had a longer lead time. Stricter work agreements and tightened oversight also ensure that more projects start on time; this way, better use is made of the technical capacity, and customers and contractors can be assured of higher reliability in the planning.
Long-term and integrated outsourcing
During the year under review, we achieved positive results with outsourcing entire projects to contractors. The contractors handle both the preparations and implementation, which includes linking up to the networks, enabling us to handle more work together. In August, Liander signed a major contract with three contractors, who will carry out replacement and expansion work over the next ten years at around 4,500 medium-voltage stations in three regions. In October, Liander signed a four-year contract with contractors for work on the energy networks in Amsterdam. By outsourcing activities in full, our technicians can focus on other specialist work, troubleshooting, and maintenance on the power grid. Furthermore, because these long-term contracts provide contractors with more certainty about their work package, they can hire and train more people, meaning the Netherlands can rely on more technicians.
Up to 2019, when planning our work we determined the amount of time our activities would take on the basis of fixed, average standard lead times. We analysed which factors affect these standard lead times, such as the presence of any soil contamination. Now, by using more precise standards in projects, we can plan our work more accurately, enabling us to handle more work. In 2019, we started managing large-user connection projects using this new standards approach.
We have been experimenting with production innovation in the implementation process, like with the prefab substation we developed with other parties. In Wageningen the first prefab substation was brought into operation. This solution reduces the installation time considerably and minimises interdependencies in the planning.
Recruitment, training and retention
With regard to our in-house technical staff, we have put considerable effort into increasing labour capacity by working on recruitment, training and retention. This includes special programmes for recruiting and training school-leavers and asylum status holders, as well as holding onto technical staff through retention measures and by offering career development paths. The training and development section provides more information.
We are constantly investigating ways to make optimum use of the existing network using innovative solutions, including smart expansions and smart technical modifications to the electricity grid, for example, and initiatives to enhance collaboration between sectors and with supply chain partners and new energy carrier partners. The measure or solution chosen depends on the situation. Examples of technical innovations include ‘cable pooling’ (connecting solar farms and wind farms on a single cable) and non-redundant connections. Redundant power is a kind of reserve power that ensures that the electricity does not have to be switched off in the event of power interruptions or maintenance. By using this reserve capacity at stations, we have more capacity in the grid. In 2019, we set up pilots to investigate the possibilities of the new energy carrier hydrogen. We want to learn what the large-scale production of green hydrogen from wind and solar power can mean for affordable and reliable network management.
Increasing the company’s effectiveness
To ensure that we make a successful contribution to the energy transition, it is essential that Alliander focus on meeting the challenges. It is important that we organise ourselves effectively and operate as one team. To find out whether all employees have the same goal in mind for Alliander, a strategy alignment survey was held at the end of June. From this survey, it was clear that managers and employees know the challenges Alliander is facing in order to continue to fulfil our task. We have also seen that there is room for further increasing our focus in how we take on challenges as an organisation, how teams contribute to the pursuit of our strategy, and which priorities they must set. There is also scope for better collaboration between Alliander teams on clear choices that we make as an organisation for Alliander’s future. After the survey, each team met to discuss the direction Alliander is taking. Work is currently ongoing on an approach that will help us create an excellent organisation.
To become more effective and agile, in 2019 various adjustments were made to Alliander’s business units, like at Qirion, for example, which is working with a new classification of regions. The IT unit, too, launched a transformation programme in 2019. We also work with new methods that increase our agility and we continue to examine how we can organise and perform our tasks in the most effective way possible.
Digital technologies and innovations are unlocking new opportunities for managing our networks. Alliander employs these new opportunities to more quickly detect and even prevent interruptions, make more targeted investments in the networks, and offer customers the data and services (including self-service) they need to make better energy choices and manage energy flows more effectively, allowing for better use of the current grid. This is how we can restrict the need for network upgrades.
With this in mind, in 2019 we continued work on the roll-out of digital components, i.e. devices that can monitor, detect and, in some cases, switch, such as the Smart Cable Guard (SCG), smart medium-voltage stations, and smart meters. The data from these smart devices are converted into valuable information for customers and employees using innovative algorithms and AI. This way we can ensure that the service technician is already close by when the customer reports a disruption, that outages are prevented, and that optimum use is made of the grid’s capacity.
Because some customers request a large number of connections all at once, we have developed a customer integration tool. This allows us to quickly analyse multi-connection requests and make calculations to determine the impact on substations and the medium-voltage network.
Fewer and shorter disruptions
Smart Cable Guard (SCG) is a system that detects and pinpoints weak spots in the underground electricity network, ideally before these lead to outages. Using this system, in 2019 we prevented 40 power cuts and shortened the duration of 77 others. By the end of the year, we had over 900 SCGs monitoring our network, which is more than targeted (800). Smart meters installed in homes and small businesses also help to shorten the duration of power outages. These meters help us pinpoint faults so that the service technician can get to the location faster, and we do not have to ask customers all sorts of technical questions either: we already know the answers. This year, service technicians started working with an app that provides them with on-site information that was previously only available back at home base. If customers are entitled to financial compensation as a result of a low-voltage power outage, this is automatically calculated and paid out in more than 80% of the cases.
Targeted network investments
Digital installations can support traditional installations in order to shorten the outage duration as much as possible at the lowest costs possible. There are countless possibilities for combining digital with traditional installations. For this purpose, an optimisation model has been created that uses algorithms to automatically come up with the most cost-efficient proposal for the installation of smart medium-voltage stations, SCGs, and breakers, helping our network planners to make targeted investment decisions. With regard to the smart medium-voltage stations, the 127 we installed put us above the 100 targeted for the year under review.
Flex-market in the Zuidplaspolder area
Following the flex-market in Nijmegen-Noord, we started preparations for a flex-market in the Zuidplaspolder area. Due to the construction of new homes and the expansion of businesses in this area, we expect a shortage of distribution capacity (grid congestion). Together with TenneT and Stedin we are preparing for the construction of a new distribution substation, though it will be a few years before the substation is completed. One of the solutions to capacity problems in the meantime is a flex-market that matches supply of electricity to demand, by shifting electricity consumption to different times or storing energy temporarily for use during peak periods.
Offering smart meters
One crucial link in the creation of a smarter infrastructure is the smart meter. Customers are increasingly making their own energy decisions. Smart meters help customers to save energy, use energy when costs are low, or feed energy back into the grid when the price of electricity is high. Since the start of the roll-out of the smart meter, we have offered the device to 2.4 million customers. Each day, more than 2 million requests for data from the smart meter are now being processed. In 2019, we offered the smart meter to more than 600,000 customers and we are ahead of the schedule that was presented to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. We achieved this result despite a prolonged production stop in October 2018 at one of the two suppliers of the smart meters, which was due to quality issues in the production process.
At the end of 2019, 107% of the work scheduled for 2019 had been carried out. The progress made each month is shown on Alliander.com. We intend to offer smart meters to all our customers by 2020, which means we still have 375,000 addresses to go in 2020. We expect to encounter many empty buildings and homes where adjustments to the meter cabinet or connection are required. We are working in close cooperation with our partners, such as contractors, to offer customers the smart meter.