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Implementing a Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS): Lessons learned

Having implemented the flexible interconnection of over 400MW, I believe that Smarter Grid Solutions (SGS) has added more autonomously controlled Distributed Energy Resources (DER) to the grid than most. Here are a few lessons, some after much difficulty, that we’ve learned along the way which may be of help if you are purchasing and deploying a Distributed Resource Energy Management System (DERMS).

1) Evaluating the DERMS Market – what is on offer?

ADMS, DERMS, Microgrid Controller, ANM – these systems all mean different things to different people, and there is significant overlap between vendor offerings in this space. This article will broadly speak to DERMS, and the variety of potential use cases, however the lessons apply to the other mentioned acronyms. It’ll also not specify any particular Power Systems use case. Economic viability is inextricably linked to the business case required to justify your purchase, however the benefits are often difficult to quantify and may not be realized quickly.

The DERMS market can be considered analogous to that of the smart phone industry. Samsung can offer you the Android operating system; Apple ship their handsets with iOS. A poor experience with Android doesn't mean 'the smart phone market' doesn't have what you are looking for. It is important for market credibility that all vendors have a strong product offering, and like all market places, it would be a mistake to judge everyone on a single specific experience. To expand upon the smart phone example, it is insufficient to purely purchase a DERMS platform and assume that it will have every app you wanted. Basic functionality like call, text messaging and internet browser will come with your operating system, but the real power is in how you customize it. Selecting the correct vendor will help you get all of the apps you want, and have them customized to your needs. Each DERMS vendor should have similar core functionality, but often have different philosophies in their implementation.

Additionally, applications and features are subject to ongoing configuration and refinement. Who knew 10 years ago we would be using our mobile phones to take pictures of another galaxy… few knew we would be controlling our home and pressing a few buttons to order our lunch. Like an app store offering some DERMS vendors will have perfected their optimization and analytics engines. Some will have visually impressive user interfaces. Each will continue to improve and broaden their capabilities. Modern software engineering methodologies result in iterative and frequent updates. This model does not map perfectly on to the model of a utility which, rightly so, manages changes in a deliberately steady and predictable manner. However, what it can do is give you a unique opportunity to shape a product to your vision.

My experience - Control systems are highly configurable, think about what is important and work with the vendor closely during requirements elicitation. Start simple, and then grow your complexity allowing significant time for testing as you go. This will aid your application selection and help your DERMS flourish within the organisation; well-designed applications will be extensible and continue to evolve as your requirements become more complexed. Over time, needs and capabilities will evolve in tandem.

2) How to overcome communications barriers

A daunting aspect of purchasing a control system is the cross-pollination of a variety of domains that each have their own expertise. Protection systems, control room, operations, markets, communications and cyber security departments all exist within a utility, to name a few. The next section of this article discusses complexity management, but this section tackles the issue of communications. Too often communications is presented as a barrier and an area of concern. “What if the communications fail?” is a regular and sensible question to ask. Perception is that it’s an insurmountable issue. However, in my experience this it is not the case. When configured correctly, communications technologies are very reliable. For critical systems, insert a redundant system. THEN you plan for it to fail gracefully; detecting a communications issue and responding appropriately through decentralized control will eliminate much of the risk associated with a communications failure. This often doesn't require additional hardware; decentralized control can detect an interruption in communications and act accordingly. Depending on the connected DER, the price to implement reliable communications can be trivial in comparison with the outcomes that would result from a loss of communications.

Key takeaway - This is use case specific. A relatively inexpensive and reliable solution can result in the “holy grail of 5 nines” (99.999% - a max of 5 minutes per year downtime). Often, this requires careful configuration. Initial implementation will typically involve ironing out teething issues. The knowledge acquired during this process results in minimized disruption thereafter. Additional redundancy will inevitably cost money, therefore consider how essential your requirements are and the impact of failure – a Failure Mode & Effect Analysis (FMEA) can help guide your decisions.


3) Complexity Management – Cross-domain conversations.

The entire process of purchasing and implementing a DERMS will require the engagement of a range of stakeholders, often many who have conflicting incentives. An example may be operational staff who want to avoid disruption to their networks and ensure changes are minimal and well managed. Project coordinators are focused on ensuring a timely implementation within their allocated budget. Another example would be DER developers wanting to maximize their investment and ensure their financing models are accurate. IT departments have a particular focus on security. There are many more stakeholders.

The concepts presented to them are often complex and nuanced. During the sales process, systems are reduced to simpler diagrams to present a comprehensible mental model to aid our discussions and understanding. However, the transition to implementation requires granular design discussions with the appropriate departments. Visualisation during this process is arguably essential; a combination of UML, SysML and the use of Common Informational Model (CIM) would help ensure a consistent understanding of the requirements and design of a given DERMS. Additionally, creating a common ontology at the earliest opportunity will provide clarity during transitional stages and avoid costly miscommunications. All of these steps allow for abstracted conversations appropriate to the stakeholders needs and concerns. This should be a deliberate and early step.

Managing the communication and language used is not an insignificant task. It requires a variety of skills that few have the opportunity to receive, as well as a diligence and discipline to remain committed to what might initially feel like a cumbersome process. Technical understanding of a variety of domains requires a minimum of 10 to 15 years of exposure to implementation experience in different specialist areas. The person or team who will lead this also require exceptional skills to develop sufficient levels of abstraction to communicate to the broad range of stakeholders.

Valuable lessons – Invest in broad multi-disciplinary skilled people. Grid architecture is an evolving skill that will help a team train and drive change throughout the organization by facilitating cross-domain communication. This will also help understand the driving forces across the business to help avoid delays or blockers.

4) The solutions to cyber security comes from within

Cyber security restrictions can kill the joy and inertia (pun intended) of many projects. Strong cyber and physical) defenses are, unfortunately, required as adversarial actors exist in our industry. There are already notorious examples in Ukraine and California to signify that the cyber and physical threats to infrastructure is real. However, like communications, it is not an intractable problem, nor one that requires us to stifle innovation.

We have digitized our bank accounts, store our key documents in the cloud, invited Alexa into our homes and invited Siri into our pockets to follow us around. There are many mature solutions to address cyber security. Technology can be used create a robust perimeter, provide multiple layers of defense, encrypt traffic and implement intrusion or anomaly detection. In fact, many utilities already provide a solution to our greatest vulnerability… us. The human is by far the weakest link, and training is essential. North American Electric Reliability Corporation critical infrastructure protection (NERC CIP) training is well underway at many utilities, and further adoption will help create a culture whereby employees are alert and aware to the dangers. Raising awareness to phishing attacks, encouraging 2-factor authentication and not allowing weak passwords (e.g. ‘P@ssword1’) are critical to ensuring you are minimizing the risk of being attacked. One step further, which I’ve yet to observe but would recommend, would be to invite White Hat Hackers into the organization to expose vulnerabilities.

My experience – Cyber security is largely down to organizational culture. Engender ownership over cyber security within the organization by providing sufficient training, tooling (e.g. password managers) and clearly identify where an individual may be targeted. Understand the nuance of where an allowable risk can be taken to advance your system, and where caution must be exercised. A well-judged probability and impact assessment will help address the risks in a logical and systematic manner.

5) Appropriate use of Standards and Regulation

Standards and regulation are essential, however they are not a panacea. Standards and regulation exist for a reason. They are meant to: a) codify best practice; b) ensure people don't repeat the same mistakes, and; c) provide a consistent framework among vendors to prevent the reinvention of the wheel. In the DERMS domain standards are evolving and we need to live with that. The IEEE 2030 range certainly represent an admirable baseline, but they are yet to be comprehensive. Additionally, standards in particular are often guidelines, and rarely provides a complete implementation guide making them subjective and open to interpretation. When adopting a communications protocol or standard, a critical thing to understand is that standardization rarely means interoperability and almost never means plug and play. Standards have without doubt had a meaningful impact on the industry, and will continue to be a key component moving forward.

Regulation is meant to provide incentives or encouragement for utilities to innovate their grid and provide savings for the electricity rate payers. In some geographies the regulatory framework isripe with incentives and encouragement (or, in some instances, stern warnings) to adopt new technologies. Other markets may be less mature but ever more reason to get ahead of it. Both environmental and financial drivers will be key to accelerate and manage additional DER in the coming years as climate change targets become increasingly aggressive. Developing a marketplace and financial instruments to exchange energy at a distribution level has already been demonstrated in New York. Regulators are taking this seriously. The multi-objective optimization problem of ensuring that electricity rate payer’s money is being used appropriately, and they are not needlessly being charged while providing financial incentives for utilities and DER operations doesn’t always converge. Relaxing constraints and sharing the spoils is often the only way to get out of a deadlock. It is imperative to consider alternatives such a DERMS.

My experience -Each use case is unique and of course, highly complex from a logistical, financial and regulatory point of view. For the purposes of brevity, this article proposes that a software-based solution should be considered and encouraged as part of regulatory committee hearings. System planners and operators should be aware of the benefits DERMS can and already are providing to our power systems. Compared with switchgear and line upgrades, DERMS is more often than not a cheaper, faster and environmentally efficient solution to the challenge of connecting additional DER to the grid. Upgrading the regulatory framework to keep abreast of technology developments will help encourage rollout of DERMS beyond trial projects.


It is common to casually comment on the seemingly slow speed at which the industry moves, however the developments of the last 10 years gives hope to the promise that our aging grid can be revolutionized. Careful direction is required to navigate the market and make prudent investments into a new DERMS platform, however engaging in clear conversation and understanding the benefits to everyone with negotiating the path to making their DERMS come true. The trial phase that the industry is currently experiencing is essential to learn, and gently embed new technologies within utilities. Evolving trials into larger rollouts is an exciting phase that various utilities appear to preparing for. Having worked on the deployment of these systems for most my working career I hope my observations, and mistakes, are beneficial to those about to embark on their DERMS journey.