Electricity networks - Smartgrids: vision or reality?


The electricity grids that serve European consumers today have evolved using similar technologies and infrastructure for more than a hundred years and though they have served well to date, it is clear more of the same will not be sufficient to meet current challenges and policy imperatives. New challenges arising from market liberalisation, increasing use of renewable energy sources and level of service requirement, calls for fresh thinking and in order to meet future needs, Europe's electricity networks must be flexible, accessible, reliable and economic

Enabling Europe's electricity grids to meet these challenges, take advantage of future market opportunities and fulfil society's expectations requires vigorous research efforts and a robust technical solution. The SmartGrids European Technology Platform has been introduced to enhance the level of coherence between the European, national and regional programmes and address the challenges of future networks. In this article, Masoud Bazargan, general manager of Areva T&D's technology centre explains why it is critical that the industry strives towards a shared vision and the benefits that SmartGrids technology platform will bring to the industry. He also highlights a number of pilot studies which are currently taking place as a result of the research and development.

The creation of SmartGrids
During the first International Conference on the Integration of Renewable Energy Sources and Distributed Energy Resources back in 2004, industry stakeholders including regulators, network operators, network designers, equipment manufacturers and technology providers as well as the research community, recognised that a technology platform for the electricity networks of the future had to be created. It became apparent through these discussion groups that there were doubts as to whether the existing electricity grid would be able to effectively integrate existing and future concepts such as renewable energy, micro generation and consumer integration within the grid.

As a result, the European Commission Directorate General for Research developed the initial concept and guiding principles of the technology platform with the support of existing research alongside IRED (Integration of Renewable Energies and Distributed Generation) which represents over 100 stakeholders in the electricity networks sector. Subsequently, the SmartGrids European technology platform for electricity networks of the future was formed and began its work in 2005 with an overarching aim to formulate and promote a shared vision for the development of European electricity networks looking towards 2020 and beyond. Areva T&D was one of the founding organisations within the technology platform and was invited by its members to chair its top level advisory council.

The scope of this particular platform aims to provide a joint vision towards efficient and reliable electricity supply. The market for sourcing energy has widened and as a result the network needs to be flexible in order to adapt to future developments and fulfil the needs of both the consumers and the network operators. Customers' habits and the manner in which they use their energy will also transform over time and the network needs to be able to cope with such changes.

The network of the future is also required to be accessible in that it needs to grant connection access to all network users, particularly for renewable power sources and high efficiency local generation with zero or low carbon emissions. Traditionally, through transmission and distribution systems, power stations dispatch power and there is little or no consumer participation and no end to end communications. Individuals, small businesses and communities who utilise micro generation technologies such as small scale wind turbines, hydroelectric plants, ground source heat pumps and PV (Photovoltaic) solar systems, should be equipped with the ability to send electricity back to the grid so that it becomes a bi-directional flow of power. This of course would provide real benefits for both the operator and the consumer who should then be incentivised.

Assuring and improving the security and quality of the electricity supply, consistent with the demands of the digital age with resilience to hazards and uncertainties is also a key requirement to meet the needs of Europe's future and one which the technology platform will strive to ensure is implemented. Today's society depends on a secure supply of energy. There are countries without adequate reserves of fossil fuels that are facing increasing concerns as to primary energy availability. Furthermore, the ageing infrastructure of Europe's electricity transmission and distribution networks is threatening the security, reliability and quality of supply. We need to be looking at ways of re-designing grids which address these challenges.

The technology platform will also seek to form a network that is sustainable by providing best value through efficient energy management, deregulation and application of innovative technologies. Although SmartGrids seeks to address the challenges and opportunities for the electricity grids of 2020 and beyond, it needs to be an evolutionary process due to the cost and long life of the majority of existing network components. Short term issues require resolution immediately whilst defining and researching the long term challenges. The strategy needs to fulfil the expectations of society, protect the environment as well as minimise risk and allow for timely business decisions and actions to be taken.
It is important to note that SmartGrids is not just about the needs and opportunities of Europe. The majority of its features are appropriate and beneficial for networks around the world. However, it is triggers such as the liberalisation of the European energy market, the need for a secure cross-continent electricity network as well as Europe's recognition of identifying and implementing effective solutions that address global warming, which position Europe at the forefront of the SmartGrids revolution.

Although the advantages to having a technology platform in place are evident, there are tough challenges ahead. The technology certainly exists, however more effort needs to be carried out in order to prove the effectiveness of the technology on existing, live networks.
Areva T&D is at the forefront of the SmartGrids revolution and is helping to design and build Europe's electricity grids of the future. It is partnering with network operators to understand their needs and concerns, explain how they can benefit from emerging technologies and deploy pilots and proof of concepts.

Pilot studies taking place
Areva T&D's technology centre in Stafford is playing an integral role in performing short and long term research activities. Short term SmartGrids research which we are now starting to see being implemented is in the area of technology-based information and communications, whereby network owners are reaping the benefits, one of which is that they can still retain the same electricity network infrastructure without having to make significant changes. Thermal measurement equipment and thermal estimator algorithms are allowing the creation of products that allow network owners to manage the dispatch of power in their grid, which in turn, avoids overheating of components and associated network losses. Populating the future grid with nano-scale sensors may in the future allow us to optimise the performance of the grid in that it will permit real-time condition monitoring of all the components. However, in the short term, Areva T&D is creating network operation and management benefits through the incorporation of a more finite number of sensors in key equipment.
Another project aligned with the SmartGrids vision and one which Areva T&D is a leading player, is Fenix, whereby it is creating the network management software which allows owners of small-scale generators to aggregate and create a virtual power plant. In doing so, owners can trade on to the network and sell their power generation capacity for maximum value and benefit to the overall network.

Distribution network operators are also now providing Smart meters to domestic consumers. These devices allow remote reading of meters which enables automated billing. Areva T&D is creating the technology to enable these meters to act as a platform for real-time pricing of electricity to the consumer and to settle all transactions between consumer and the operator. Such a change could happen very soon and would lead to a demand-side revolution that will enable customers to participate directly in the electricity market as consumers and producers. In these customer-centric networks, consumers will decide whether to use energy intensive appliances at peak times, or instead delay their use until demand and the energy price is lower, thus smoothing and removing the peaks of demands that the industry experiences now. This could in turn lead to reduction of spinning reserve needed for system stability and security of supply and/or costly reinforcement of the network thus reducing the environmental impact.

Shaping the future
The importance of the SmartGrids technology platform cannot be underestimated. Throughout the development of the new grids, communication at every level is vital. Effective dialogue between industry stakeholders will ensure that relevant information influences the system design of the future. Many factors will shape future electricity networks and the actions and decisions taken today will influence longer term outcomes. In order to be sure our network will sufficiently meet future needs, the SmartGrids vision must be embraced. By doing so, industry stakeholders, consumers and the environment can reap the benefits such a vision seeks to provide.