Solvay Energy Services, the French subsidiary of the Solvay group, is particularly active in renewable energy aggregation services. To help its customers stop their production during periods of negative prices, the company worked with Opinum and its Data Hub platform.
In France, Solvay Energy Services is the subsidiary of the Solvay group active both as a supplier of gas and electricity and as an aggregator of cogeneration and renewable energy production facilities.
Originally, Rhodia, a major French chemical group acquired by Solvay in 2011, had set up an Energy entity to manage energy purchases to meet the needs of the group's various entities. Over time, its activities have been deployed to serve its industrial customers, both large and small. The acquisition of Rhodia by Solvay has in no way changed this strategy, quite the contrary.
Starting in 2012, a strategic shift was made towards the aggregation and management of renewable energy production (wind, solar, hydraulic or from waste treatment and recovery), in line with the group's desire to commit to offering solutions and services inspired by the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. Solvay's involvement in the Solar Impulse adventure is undoubtedly the example that is best known to the general public and most widely publicised in the media.
MAKING THE MOST OF RENEWABLE ENERGY
In the industrial sector, Solvay Energy Services provides services for the purchase and recovery of electricity from renewable energy sources. The company guarantees producers the purchase of their electricity at a competitive price throughout the duration of the contract with additional remuneration. This system, which was implemented in France in 2016, provides a mixed "remuneration" for the sale of electricity from renewable energy sources: on one hand, the market price of the electricity and, on the other hand, the "supplement" which takes the form of a bonus from the government.
Today, the French customer base of Solvay Energy Services is made up of a very diverse range of producers.
Solvay Energy Services buys back the energy from these producers and reinjects it into the network, guaranteeing them an optimal resale price. This is an activity that requires close monitoring of market prices - in real time - as well as production levels in order to optimise gains for the producers.
"The basic principle of energy trading is that when the network is matched, the prices charged become negative," explains Hélène Baron, digital transformation leader at Solvay Energy Services. "It is therefore a question of being able to shut down production facilities for which, during these periods, it is no longer interesting to produce energy. As an aggregator, we needed to be able to effectively manage negative prices". Negative prices occur during periods of high production and/or low demand.
"In the beginning, we only advised these customers, training and advising them on production time slots and how best to manage their production equipment. For some time now, we have been offering services with higher added value. Indeed, we take remote control of their systems in order to control their shutdown and restart according to market prices".
To do this, Solvay Energy Services needed a reliable and robust solution that would allow them to remotely control their systems and the management of shutdowns and restarts. That's when they turned to Opinum.
"We needed an effective solution to manage the phenomenon of negative prices on the market and to promote the resale of renewable energies" -
"The platform collects a wide range of data from production sites, including power output, machine status (running, down, maintenance), the status of the server that drives the site installation - for example, is it active, is it working, has a system error occurred, or is it unable to interpret the orders received?
The Opinum Data Hub platform enables Solvay to provide very precise services, as well as a way to intervene whenever there is a fluctuation in market prices. The data collected in real time by the Opinum Data Hub does not only allows us to identify these anomalies but also to take action and fix them.
A message is then sent, by e-mail or text message, to the mobile phone of the person managing the installation or to the operator who can take the necessary measures on site. "We always have an accurate view of the status of the installations. We can see whether a machine is stopped or not, and whether the PLC has effectively recovered the restart command. This is the value of the Opinum solution: it allows us to launch relevant orders and to intervene in a very short period of time, which is essential to maximise the profitability of production".
ONE FACE TO THE CUSTOMER
The choice of the Opinum solution was governed by another major argument: the ability of the solution - and of the development team itself - to adapt to any system, device or configuration deployed by the power producer. "Whatever the situation or configuration, we are sure that the systems on both sides talk to each other in the right formats," says Hélène Baron. Not to mention the fact that communications between the systems are carefully secured. To do this, VPN connections were used, with server licences with limited time validity "to guarantee to the customer that commands and orders do indeed emanate from the Opinum platform and thus avoid any risk of hacking or malicious intervention".
Safety is obviously not taken lightly by Solvay Energy Services, which is important regarding its credibility and competitive argument. "As with any partner we call upon for the provision and operation of a solution, we required Opinum to submit their solution to regular penetration tests. This is an additional guarantee that we can pass on to our own customers".
"Whatever the situation or configuration, we are sure that the systems on both sides speak to each other in the right formats" - Hélène Baron
Another quality that Solvay Energy Services recognises in Opinum is its flexibility and reactivity. "We are rather satisfied with the collaboration. The Opinum team is very responsive and listens very well. They are also a source of proposals in relation to our requests or those, sometimes exotic, of our customers. The Opinum team then intervenes by offering us solutions that make sense.
The company has also demonstrated that it knows how to respect its commitments and is transparent in its dealings".
The trust that Solvay Energy Services places in Opinum and its solution is to some extent also reflected in the decision to operate in "one face to the customer" mode. "With regard to our customers, we act as a single point of contact".
For the time being, the Opinum solution is still only used by Solvay Energy Services for monitoring and steering its renewable energy aggregator activities in France, even though the subsidiary is active in other markets. Priority is given to the extension of its own national customer base, notably through the purchase of new renewable production parks - a market where competition is becoming increasingly intense following the liberalisation of the purchase obligation which, at the time, was imposed on EDF.
On the functional side, a reflection has been initiated on the possibility of providing the Opinum platform, as used by Solvay Energy Services, with a potential for forecasting energy production by customers. The idea is still at a preliminary stage and will require the choice of one or the other model for forecasting analyses.
Another possibility would be to open up access to the platform to customers so that they can enter their planned maintenance periods themselves, something that today still has to be done manually by the Solvay Energy Services team.