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AllianderxRethinking Energy – Rethinking the construction of local electricity networks

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The energy transition requires an expansion and reinforcement of the electricity grid at a time when qualified employees are scarce. 

Significant time and specialized employees are required for tasks such as the assembling of cable connections and cable ends, cable selection and identification of cables in medium-voltage rooms. Therefore, more efficient methods for these activities are sought. In this exploration, Alliander came across Rethinking Energy. An open Innovation Platform established by TNW and nlmtd, to accelerate the energy transition by seeking global solutions to the key challenges and promoting collaboration and knowledge sharing among all parties involved in the energy transition. 

nlmtd and TNW were asked to conduct a worldwide research project on innovative ideas and concepts for technical solutions that could radically accelerate the construction and expansion of the electricity grid: without limitations in the current process, products, and materials. Preferably with quick implementation possibilities. 

Global search 

Over a period of three months, solutions were sought through solution scouting, social campaigns, research, and expert interviews. Scouting for solutions took place globally in different areas and domains. A wide range of international experts and companies were consulted to map the global landscape of innovations, to get to know various applied construction techniques and to gain insights regarding the current process. 

Where to find radical innovations for this?! 

The start of the scouting process was quite challenging. The Rethinking Energy method is developed for – and often focused on – a dynamic field with numerous startups and a lot of innovation, with a focus on digitalization. Now, this method had to be applied to an industry with an established system of large traditional companies, seeking innovation for robotics, mechanization, and automation in a specific part of the chain. 

While new construction techniques are certainly being developed, there are few innovations for the installation of cables and pipelines. Initially found innovations were largely already known and/or not applicable to Alliander’s needs. As the process progressed, the team aligned more closely, resulting in the emergence of interesting techniques during the research. Ultimately, in October 2022, five technological solutions made it onto the shortlist for further investigation. 

Today, in July 2023, four of these identified technologies are still on Alliander’s radar. One has already been implemented, and the other three are being explored for further development or potential use to accelerate and simplify the installation of (new) electricity cables for Alliander. 

A plug for cables 

According to Alliander, the concept of plug-in connections for medium-voltage cables has the greatest potential. This principle is already applied in high-voltage systems but has not yet made its way to medium-voltage systems. Alliander is collaborating with other grid operators to explore whether a request to the market can be set to look for if and by whom this concept can be applied to the entire Dutch medium-voltage grid. 

No trench in the sidewalk, but a “worm” that digs a tunnel 

Furthermore, the Earth Worm, an autonomous tunnel-digging robot found in America, requires further maturity and development before it can be applied to the Dutch medium-voltage grid. 

The NANODrill by Kormee appears to be an interesting option in specific installation situations. Discussions with contractors are still ongoing to identify potential areas where it can lead to acceleration. Lastly, a new version of a connecting joint (nl: verbindingsmof) from FILO Form, which allows faster cable connections, has already been put into use. 

Despite the challenging start of the scouting process due to the specific requirements within an established domain, the team looks back on a successful collaboration. The intensive collaboration between the Innovation Team from Alliander, TNW, and nlmtd has resulted in valuable innovations that can contribute to further accelerating the energy transition. The Rethinking Energy method has brought new applications to the established industry, which Alliander continues to investigate. We will closely follow which solutions will deliver value. 

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