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Digital transformation at Elia: data-centric innovation

The energy sector is in full transition. Energy suppliers and distributors are preparing for the future. Among them, high-voltage transmission system operator Elia. To ensure that ‘the lights stay on, always and everywhere’, Elia is updating its transmission infrastructure and processes. A complex undertaking, with the organization resolutely choosing to focus on digitization. Elia wants to become a digital transmission system operator that makes maximum use of new technology and data.

To transmit electricity from producers to distribution networks – across borders – and ensure that demand and supply remain in balance, that is Elia’s task. Not easy considering traditional and renewable energy sources and on and offshore energy production are being combined more and more. In addition, demand for electricity is continuously rising, driven in part by the growing use of electric cars, and energy customers are no longer just consumers but also producers.

The way forward? A digital revolution! By embracing new technology such as the cloud, big data, IoT, AI and blockchain, Elia can automate processes, operate more flexibly and gain real-time insights. What’s more, digitization – and the huge amounts of data Elia has at its disposal – helps improve internal efficiency and service provision.

Digital backbone: the foundation

The digital transformation project of Elia is ambitious. It consists of many facets, runs over several years and is managed by a large internal innovation team, in close collaboration with external experts. Among them, Ordina. We have been involved in the building of Elia’s ‘digital backbone’, the foundation of most data & innovation initiatives since 2017.

Ordina project manager Gaëtan Leydens explains: ‘You don’t just plug new technology into an existing IT infrastructure. To be able to innovate fully, the foundation has to be rock solid. In the last few decades, Elia has developed an impressive number of custom applications. This has led to a legacy system that worked well, but has also resulted in the creation of applicative silos. This lack of a more structural integration caused mostly problems with the data, which was often inconsistent, incomplete or not up-to-date. And this when uniform, quality data is central to the digitization plans – and even the business model – of Elia. Hence the need for a “digital backbone”.’

 You don’t just plug new technology into an existing IT infrastructure. To be able to innovate fully, the foundation has to be rock solid.

Data from internal and external sources

Elia recognized that in realizing the energy transition data was key. They called in Ordina to help. The company wanted a new ecosystem that was flexible and scalable enough to integrate data from both internal and external sources, including stricter and better managed processes for data management. ‘We organized a series of workshops with the business to map the existing landscape and needs; we identified what digital capabilities and technological components were required and outlined a roadmap,’ Gaëtan says.

Creating an integration hub

The creation of an integration hub was a first major step. Gaëtan: ‘The systems Elia has developed in the past work well and are all relevant, but they were hard to link. Instead of throwing out the existing systems, we setup an enterprise service bus, a kind of intermediate layer that enables all systems and data to communicate with each other. Not one to one, and with the usage of a canonical and transversal data model that ensures that all systems speak the same language and guarantees the separation between the semantic and their applications landscape’

Instead of throwing out the existing systems, we developed an integration hub: the enterprise service bus, which enables all systems and data to communicate with each other.

The importance of master data management

As well as building the data model, Ordina was also involved in the master data Initiative. ‘It’s inevitable that employees in different departments often have their own way of interpreting the same data. This means that you end up comparing apples with pears. That doesn’t just result in inefficiency and so, wasting of time, but in the context of Elia is crucial,’ according to Gaëtan. He illustrates this with a concrete scenario. ‘When the conductors on the power transmission line in a substation have to be replaced, the planning department, the assets department and control center should all have the same information about the kilovolt-ampere specifications for this type of conductor. If not, this could have serious consequences for the safety of the operators working on the network or could have caused downtime. Luckily, that didn’t happen, but it just shows how crucial consistent data is.’

Connecting instead of centralizing

That is why the Ordina team contributed to the development of a unique Master Data Management tool for all ‘grid components’, consisting of a series of topological layers. ‘Here, too, the starting point is that we don’t want to centralize/merge the data but rather connect it. The business inputs its own data and this ends up in a topological layer, for instance, the ‘asset layer’ with input from the assets department. The connectivity layer in the tool ensures synchronization and consolidation of the concepts from the different layers. This happens mostly automatically. Only when there are ambiguities or exceptions the user receives a notification and he/she has to verify the data,’ explains Gaëtan. ‘The formulation of semantic rules about the concepts is now in the hands of the business.’

Change management

The integration hub and data management tool are only two examples of how Ordina is supporting Elia with technology and insights. Gaëtan and his team are also regularly involved in data architecture and are now building the foundation of the Open Data platform, that facilitates the integration of external data via the digital backbone. This opens up new possibilities for Elia to release consistent data sets publicly.

Some of the other activities the team takes care of include: strategy, project management and even change management. ‘The investments in data management and data quality won’t pay off if Elia employees don’t adapt their way of working. We raise awareness and help people make the change to the new systems, tools and methodology.’

‘Elia is aware of the fact that if it wants to stay a market leader, they have to accelerate and innovate in all areas. A smooth connection between all its applications and prompt availability of its data is a crucial first step in achieving this. It’s exciting to take part in a program that is so vital to Elia’s future,’ Gaëtan concludes.

Elia wants to accelerate and innovate in all areas. A smooth connection between all its applications and prompt availability of its data is a crucial first step.