Pylons against sky

Developing a modern intelligent power grid

A vital strand in our efforts to decarbonise the electricity generation network is the development of a modern, intelligent power grid. We take a look at the progress to date.

If our climate change targets are to be achieved there is a burning need to accelerate the development of low-carbon energy technologies.

Aside from curtailing the damage to the planet's eco-system, these technologies will address the global challenges of energy security and economic growth.

A vital component of this development is the grid. It had been handed many names – the smart grid, the intelligent grid the grid of the future – but whatever it is called it is particularly important as it will enable several other low-carbon energy technologies, including electric vehicles, variable renewable energy sources and demand response to be adopted.

A smart grid, as that appears to be the preferred moniker, is the infrastructure that enables the delivery of power from generation sources to end-users to be monitored and managed in real-time. It is required to enable the use of a range of low-carbon technologies, such as variable renewable resources and electric vehicles, and to address current concerns with the electricity system infrastructure, such as meeting peak demand with an ageing infrastructure.

Aside from the legacy network that is already in place, the development of the transmission and distribution grid has unique challenges. Unlike most other low-carbon energy technologies, smart grids must be deployed in both existing systems (which in some cases are over 40 years old) as well as within totally new systems. The grid technologies must also be installed with minimum disruption to the daily operation of the electricity system.

These challenges do not detract, however, from the opportunity to gain significant benefits from developing and deploying smart grids. Nevertheless, significant barriers must be overcome in order to deploy them at the scale they are needed. Governments need to establish clear and consistent policies, regulations and plans for electricity systems that will allow innovative investment in the grid networks. It will also be vital to gain greater public engagement, and this will be helped by educating everyone involved in the process – but especially customers and consumer advocates – about the need for smart grids and the benefits they offer.

Achieving the vision of smartening the grid between now and 2050 requires governments, research organisations, industry, the financial sector and international organisations to work together.

Smart thinking

But what exactly is a smart grid. Like all such innovations there are a plethora of descriptions, often tailored to meet each vendor's product offering. But at its core, a smart grid is an electricity network that uses digital and other advanced technologies to monitor and manage the transport of electricity from all generation sources to meet the varying electricity demands of end-users. Smart grids co-ordinate the needs and capabilities of all generators, grid operators, end-users and electricity market stakeholders to operate all parts of the system as efficiently as possible, minimising costs and environmental impacts while maximising system reliability, resilience and stability.

The scope of smart grids includes electricity networks (transmission and distribution systems) and interfaces with generation, storage and end-users. While many regions have already begun to 'smarten' their electricity system, all regions will require significant additional investment and planning to achieve a smarter grid. Smart grids are an evolving set of technologies that will be deployed at different rates in a variety of settings around the world, depending on local commercial attractiveness, compatibility with existing technologies, regulatory developments and investment frameworks.

Challenges ahead

The world's electricity systems face a number of challenges, including ageing infrastructure, continued growth in demand, increasing numbers of variable renewable energy sources and electric vehicles, the need to improve the security of supply and the need to lower carbon emissions. Smart grid technologies offer ways not just to meet these challenges, but also to develop a cleaner energy supply that is more energy efficient, more affordable and more sustainable.

"What is clear is that the grid is going to need to change," Colin Green, head of regulatory affairs and technology, at ABB, says. "Grids have traditionally been engineered around the sound principles of physics, but they have also been designed recognising that you have a very large scale conventional generation that you need to transfer in bulk through the system.

"It comes off at the end consumer, and we, as consumers, have taken for granted that power is generally there when you flick the switch. What is happening now is that, for a variety of reasons, the low carbon in particular, is going to change the way in which we produce and use power. The grids themselves have to become smarter to be able to address that challenge."

These challenges must also be addressed with regard to each region's unique technical, financial and commercial regulatory environment. Given the highly regulated nature of the electricity system, proponents of smart grids must engage with all those involved in the process, including equipment manufacturers, system operators, consumer advocates and consumers, to develop tailored solutions that enable the potential of smart grids.

Over the coming years the grid will face a number of issues. On the face of it the most challenging will be the changing landscape of electricity generation. The current grid was constructed for one-way flow from huge, remote power stations to the end users. With power now generated locally and often from renewable energy solutions such as wind or solar power – whether community schemes or consumers generating their own electricity – it will enter the grid at different levels and flow both ways, not something the grid was designed for.

"A lot of the grids across the world had been engineered to largely take a power flow in one direction," Green admits. "So there is a need to be able to recognise that it may not move in one direction, it may want to move in multiple directions at different points of time of the day or different seasons.

"At present there is monitoring equipment on grids that is designed to measure power moving in one direction but they don't record information on power if it goes in the opposite direction. So there is a need to upgrade and enhance the grid systems to accommodate those sorts of challenges."

But it is not just the changing face of electricity generation that will necessitate the evolution of the grid but the demands that the climate change agenda places on the use of the energy. The electrification of transport and heat will place a huge extra demand on the network that needs to be controlled.

There have been several studies that have looked at the implications of transport and although there is a lack of agreement on its impact, one overriding theme is that there is a danger to the grid if that demand is uncontrolled – even if the energy use does not increase overall dramatically, the peak time energy usage can more than double.

A good example of a demand-led grid can be found in Australia. Factors such as high demand on air conditioning at peak times of the year mean that the local distribution grids have been engineered to accommodate very, very short duration peaks. The full capacity is used during those short duration peaks, but for 99 per cent of the year the capacity is nowhere near being fully used. "Yet consumers are, in effect, paying for the network to be there for those short duration peaks," Green explains. "Do you want to double the amount of assets in our grids to accommodate very peaky consumption? Or do we integrate things to try and move demand in generation to use the existing assets more efficiently."

Structure and responsibility

The technologies are being developed and there is an awareness of the need for the grid to be updated, but when it comes to where the responsibility to fund these changes lies it is a complex chain. In Great Britain there are three transmissions asset owners, National Grid in England and Wales as well as Scottish Power and Scottish Hydroelectric based in Scotland. In addition to that there are the local distribution network operators.

National grids have certain responsibilities for transmission and transmission networks, while the local distribution networks have responsibilities for their own local distribution networks.

"Realistically in terms of how the industries are functioned, it is for the companies to look at their networks and take responsibilities for it," Green adds. "However, there are also structures in place that encourage them to collaborate such as Ofgem's Low Carbon Network fund. The aim of which was to get local distribution companies to come forward and propose schemes, almost like trials, that would demonstrate how they could make their network smarter. The industry as a whole has a responsibility, Ofgem has a role, so does government, so do the companies themselves.

"One of the challenges unique to the UK is that we do have a fairly decentralised system. We don't tend to have the vertical integration operation that's in other countries."

There is a general sense of confidence among the industry's key players that the investment decisions will be made to move the process forwards. But the challenge is how do you insure security supply, how do you transition to a low-carbon economy and how you do that in an affordable way?

"I think ABB are quite optimistic," Green says. "We wouldn't be investing a significant amount, not only in R&D in which we have around $1.5bn a year, but also in upgrading facilities that goes with this market demand."

For the grid it is not a case of hard and fast targets for 2020 that the renewable energy sector is grappling with, but a series of incremental changes. Some fall in line with the increasing connection of renewables, but other technologies can be implemented at a pace to suit investment and product maturity.

The present grid may be creaking under the strain but it is not broken yet. The coming years are likely to see a gradual evolution of the network rather than the planned revolution. 

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