Computer screenshot of Project Falcon smart grid schematic

Falcon aims for greener smarter grid

While contributions to the grid from renewable resources prepare us for a greener future, they create unpredictable variations in supply and demand. Western Power Distribution's Project Falcon is aiming to address flexibility in energy management.

Growth of the UK's renewable energy generation means power distribution networks are facing unprecedented challenges in managing fluctuations in how much power is coming onto the network and when, due to the unpredictability of generating energy from weather.

Networks also need to improve their methods of managing capacity and dealing with peaks and troughs in demand from consumers. Project Falcon from Western Power Distribution is looking at how it can prepare to manage that now and in the future to ensure both costs and supplies are well managed.

Falcon, which stands for 'Flexible Approaches for Low-Carbon Optimised Networks', is a £16.9m collaborative project led by Western Power Distribution (WPD), with support from partners Alstom, Aston University, CGI, Cisco and Cranfield University. A series of new techniques are being trialled as well as a new tool to model the network which is being developed to simplify and increase flexibility in energy network management. Funded by the Low-Carbon Network Fund from Ofgem, and supported by private investment from WPD and its partners, the project started in December 2011 and will run until the end of September 2015.

WPD's future networks manager Roger Hey says: "One of the more interesting and innovative elements of Falcon is the use of battery-storage technology on our low-voltage networks. This is one of the early stage projects in the UK to do that. We are trying to use them in as many different ways as possible to see how they could benefit consumers in the future. One particular method is how they can help us to integrate renewable technologies much more quickly and easily while ensuring that all of our customers receive the same security of supply they experience now."

All UK power distribution networks are bound to have questions and concerns. WPD aims to address these by trialling four technological intervention techniques: dynamic asset rating, automated load transfer, meshed networks and energy storage; and two commercial intervention techniques, namely distributed generation and demand-side management.

Alongside is the development of the Scenario Investment Model (SIM), which is a prototype simulation software solution featuring an embedded network modelling tool capable of analysing the network as loads change over time. This will allow expected constraints to be visualised for different time periods for various years.

"Essentially, in trialling all these techniques we are trying to demonstrate that there are other ways to manage the changing energy landscape other than just reinforcing the network by building more capacity. We're potentially going to be looking up to 50 years ahead and modelling the different scenarios that we could see so that we can learn how we can respond more rapidly and flexibly to them," Hey says.

The results from all of the techniques on trial are going into a network-planning toolbox that will enable an 11kV network planner to assess what best piece of technology they can deploy in a given situation to meet the network's predicted demands.

Low-impact live trials

As much as is possible, future projections on population growth and demographics are being considered as well to forecast what future demand levels could look like. "You'd think that would be the easy part," Hey adds, "but fluctuations in birth rates, population changes and government policy can make this very hard to predict with any precision, and we are thankful for work that academia is doing to support us in this area."

The live commercial trials for the project are taking place in Milton Keynes, which was chosen as it has a safe, stable and newer infrastructure, meaning robust testing can take place with no impact to customers. The season 1 Winter 2013/14 report was published recently, sharing the learning gained during the design, build and operational phases of Project Falcon's season 1 commercial trials.

Season 2 commercial trials have been adapted to take into account what was learnt in the first stage and guide the project through to its end in September 2015. But at the end of the trial, what is the ideal scenario that WPD and its partners want this R&D project to reveal?

"We've been seeing some exciting results from the commercial and engineering trials so far, especially in what we're learning about battery storage," says Hey. "In particular about how they can be used to manage peak demand at local substations. For example, we are looking at whether they could be used in a very remote village where you've only got winter peaks twice a month to contend with, rather than going there and building more infrastructure.

"As this is an R&D trial we're aware that R&D doesn't always come up with the answers you want, so what we're hoping is that we'll be able to take some, if not all, of these technologies and see where else they can be deployed to great effect across the network," Hey adds.

"For example, if we are using a piece of automated technology and we find something that could be beneficial in another area we'll take it into the business and see how we can integrate it. We're also very keen to share everything we learn with the other distribution companies in the UK."

Learning lessons

All of the UK's distribution networks are working on similar projects and have been sharing information and learning from the start. Demographic differences between regions mean there isn't always a lot of crossover. Despite this, wherever possible the projects are sharing the techniques that can be applied across any demographic.

As well as taking some of what it learns into its business-as-usual processes, WPD will use other elements coming out of Falcon in further projects such as building upload profiles of specific areas and developing load templates for substations.

One of the biggest benefits, though, is that WPD will be able to give its network engineers a more informed option. In the past, assets have been run to set ratings within boundaries based on assumptions gleaned from historical data.

What Falcon is expected to deliver is data on how those assets are operating in real-time so that engineers can make informed decisions on whether or not they can safely operate outside those boundaries to manage capacity better. This means that the network can be managed more in line with what the weather is actually doing rather than what we expect for the season.

The project is hoping to build potential scenarios for up to 50 years into the future. Most technologists and industry analysts acknowledge that things are changing so fast that it can be hard to look beyond two years with anything approaching certainty. Falcon, however, is aiming to put the foundations in now with the ability to maintain pace with any changes in the future.

Hey says: "We're running these trials now and they are allowing us to build up data and knowledge of how these techniques and technologies work. All of this data will be fed into the modelling tool to predict what combination of techniques we might need to use in the future alongside the existing methodologies and traditional network reinforcement."

The example he uses to highlight this approach is that a network engineer can look at how a city is changing and that a new wind farm is being built. Then, rather than just building more capacity into the network, this allows WPD to look at all the options provided by these new technologies to see what else can be done to free up capacity before network reinforcement, which not only cuts costs but subsequently means more capacity becomes available more quickly.

The essence of the Falcon project is not to predict what the future might look like, but to make WPD's network flexible enough to cope with whatever it might bring. For now that looks like a continued increase in greener energy and a gradual scale-down of coal and nuclear generation. But with an election looming, it's impossible to forecast what the energy policies of the UK may be next year, let alone 50 years from now. 

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