In the continued drive to combat climate change most of the attention has been on the growth of renewable power, but as E&T discovers the transmission and distribution network is key to reducing greenhouse emissions and without the implementation of a smart grid it will not deliver.
There has been an awful lot of rhetoric about smart grid, but depending on who you listen to it can seem to be a disparate concept. Although there is no standard global definition, the European Technology Platform SmartGrids defines smart grids as electricity networks that can intelligently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it - generators, consumers and those that do both - in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies.
It is a definition that Mike Kay - engineering and planning director of Electricity North West - has some affinity with. 'A smart grid allows appropriate interaction between customers' appliances and the energy network supplying them, both at a local, regional and national level,' he says. 'It allows customers' appliances to be scheduled to either take advantage of real time power costs, or for the networks to achieve a demand response in relation to local or regional needs.'
Jeff Douglas, head of network strategy & development at Central Networks adds to the debate: 'It is a series of techniques that will overlay the power network and provide customer benefits - facilitating additional distributed generation connection, helping the addition of new electricity demand for electric vehicles and heat, and providing new network security features.'
'The terms are quite generic and it explains why virtually everything related to electricity can be linked with the term smart grid,' Maciej Goraj, utility marketing manager at RuggedCom, explains. 'For some people smart grid is AMI (Automatic Metering Infrastructure) and Distribution Automation, as it is obvious that these two applications lacked communications architecture in the past. We had legacy meters not equipped with communication interfaces, and the same situation with elements of electricity distribution grid like distribution substations, reclosers and sectionalising switches.
'Despite the fact that transmission systems and high voltage substations had been connected to communications architecture in many situations, the utility companies were not making efficient use of the data available from the grid. Therefore smart grid is all about intelligent devices equipped with communication interfaces and connected to the common data network, but it is also about proper applications that will make efficient and intelligent use of the data available through communications.'
These applications will, on the one hand, enable the consumers to be more aware of their electricity use and make intelligent decisions, and, on the other, enable utility companies to better operate the grid, be more predictive, and manage assets in a more economical way.
According to Andrew Jones, managing director of S&C Electric Europe, smart grids are important for the UK as they are the banner under which the UK will drive and meet its low-carbon targets, but he argues that smart grids have been in existence for many years. 'There appears to be no single consensus on what smart grids should entail, and to date much of the emphasis has been placed on smart meters,' he says. 'In reality without the grid infrastructure in place then smart meters form only a small part of the solution. From S&C perspective the following are key elements of the future, many of which we have live installation operating today through the world.'
The importance of developing an effective smart grid cannot be over-emphasised. As Goraj explains, it will affect our very lifestyle. 'It will be the revolution similar to what Internet brought to IT,' she says. 'Smart grid is the Internet of the electrical power grid.'
Another key motivator for smart grid implementation is the big changes in upstream power sources - more renewables, greater intermittency and nuclear power. Distributed generation will increase, partly in response to incentives like 'feed-in tariffs', while demand will increase to use low-carbon sources for transport and heat.
Kay agrees that the decarbonisation of both heat and transport will drive smart grid development. 'Overall energy efficiency might have a significant impact in reducing energy usage overall, but the move to a decarbonised energy system based on electricity will have two impacts: the increase in inflexible and intermittent generation and a growth in electricity usage,' he says. 'The first impact needs demand-side response to help manage the new generation mix, and the second impact will be ameliorated by the ability of the network to shape demand patterns to minimise the new build of network capacity.'
According to Kay there are no obvious technology gaps - although many of the technological elements that are required have never been deployed at scale. 'The challenges then relate to the trialling and growth of existing techniques rather than the development of new approaches, but inevitably new approaches will emerge also,' he explains. 'The most significant gap is the lack of a relationship between network operators and customers.
'Currently the customer relationship is held by energy suppliers. This relationship needs to evolve to deal with the needs of the networks, and for suppliers to reflect this into the arrangements with customers.'
Consumer participation is also high on the agenda for David Healy, the smart grid manager at the Joule Centre. 'Consumer participation is needed in reducing consumption or shifting demand to minimise peak load requirements,' he says 'Significant work needs to be done to identify what commercial and pricing arrangements will realise such goals.
'Some of the initial experiences from rollouts in the United States are not positive. For example the simple matter of paying for actual usage has generated significant 'bill shock' with some bills doubling because they are no longer based upon the annual usage being spread over a 12 month period thereby delivering evenly-spread bills.'
Although he admits that we have a great range of technologies available, Douglas believes that there are two key pieces of the jigsaw missing - namely 'the ready availability of smart metering data for DNOs to use in designing and managing network constraints in conjunction with their complex network connectivity models, and an off-the-shelf fault current limiting device for 11kV networks to help increase the amount of local generation that can be connected'.
According to Jones, the major challenge is to integrate all the different technologies and manufacturers within timescales that are considered challenging for the industry. 'OFGEM DPRC5 [Distribution Price Review Control] with its Low-Carbon Network funding should be the critical piece to drive integration over the next five years, but still taking time for the industry to understand how this will work.
'Generally there are policies and funding in place that will help establish smart grids, but there are still some areas that could see improvement. An example of this is energy storage, which, for a long time, was considered a competitor to renewable energy generation device manufacturers, but is now starting to be seen as enabling technology.
'In other countries around the world incentives are being discussed in line with the ones currently paid by governments to get renewables connected which will in turn drive demand and get costs to a level to allow large scale implementation.'
The answer according to Goraj is how the data is managed. 'Even if you have the most advanced smart meter on the market, the utility company needs to know what to do with all the data it will be receiving,' she says. 'Also robust and reliable communications architecture is required. IT grade equipment will not be valid for building the smart grid.
'Unlike the Internet, which is built on top of office-grade equipment typically located in air-conditioned rooms operated by telecom companies, the communication equipment for the smart grid must be much more robust as the electrical substations and distribution grids are a much more unfriendly environment than the telecom world. There are a lot of electromagnetic phenomena and environmental issues present in high voltage networks that need to be addressed.
'Rugged communications equipment is the only choice if we want the smart grid not only to provide valuable information for smart application but also to be extremely robust and reliable system that will guarantee continuous electricity supply for end customers and industry.'
All these and many other topics will come under the spotlight at the IET's influential two-day conference 'Smart Grid 2010: Making it a reality' that takes place in London late in May.