Smart grids: the tangled future of intelligent electricity networks

New technologies become less expensive as they get adopted by more and more users, and end up breaking the vicious cycle that holds them back. Increasing demand means more deployments, offering the manufacturer the chance to learn how to improve the product and as a result, the price drops.

It seems to be the same case with solar power technologies, which used to be expensive sources of electricity, initially used for satellites which were big budget projects. 

Vanguard 1 for example, a 1.5 kilograms satellite launched in 1958 was the first one to be charged with solar power and is still in orbit today, although it stopped operating in 1964. The grapefruit satellite had 6 solar cells that generated about 1 watt in total. 

Daryl Chapin, the co-inventor of solar cells, estimated in 1956 that it would have cost well over the equivalent of €1,000,000 to power a regular house. Clearly, that is significantly lower nowadays (an average of €15,000 to €25,000).

Back to the present, the EU’s 2020 climate target was surpassed when the percentage of renewable energy consumption reached 22.1% (the goal being at least 20%). That also made solar power the most widely used green source of energy along with wind and hydropower. This increased adoption of renewables will allow more people to actively participate in the electricity market and this is a good sign for both the economy and the environment.

However, managing an electricity system with more producers and consumers where the transactions are dynamic and real-time is a difficult task and requires modern energy systems to keep up with recent developments.

What is a smart grid and how can it solve these difficulties?

According to the Smart Grids European Technology Platform, a smart grid is an electricity network that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and prosumers (those that do both) – in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies.

As opposed to the traditional power grid, the smart one integrates the Internet of Things technology, thus becoming the Internet of Energy. This allows the smart grid to be:

  • Bidirectional: power and information flow from suppliers to consumers and vice versa.
  • Decentralised: energy is manipulated using distributed energy resources (DERs) closer to its end-users. Thanks to them, the distance energy has to travel is reduced and unlike long transmission lines, less power is wasted and more energy is used.
  • Renewable energy-friendly: With DERs, the grid can incorporate a variety of clean energy sources, such as rooftop photovoltaic systems, battery energy storage, electric vehicles, and others.
  • Self-healing: sensors and automated controls are used to eliminate a faulty section from the rest of the grid, in order to reduce the downtime in the non-affected zone. 

Sensors and smart meters, transmission lines, transformers and distributed energy resources make up the hardware part of the Internet of Energy or the Smart Grid. Let's take a look at the software part of it now.

What are Virtual Power Plants (VPP)?

Simply put, a VPP is a cloud-based system that connects independent DERs together and distributes their power during periods of peak load. This network of DERs functions as one big battery, storing a large amount of electricity that can be managed based on when the grid needs it. 

In other words, if a solar park generates excess energy, it can be connected to an electricity storage facility for later use, even if it is located in a different country or region.

Within a VPP, renewable energy generation and consumption can be balanced using data processing capabilities and with machine learning algorithms, they can also be forecasted.

Why is data processing important to maintain these smart grids?

In data processing, raw data is collected and transformed into usable information. 

Raw data means in our case, the market prices for energy, the level of temperature and humidity, and the time of the day when energy demand is the highest/lowest. This data is processed in a smart forecasting system that can be added to the VPP to predict future energy demand in real-time.

The benefits of using smart grids

The International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that smart grids can:

  • Enable informed participation by customers.
  • Accommodates all generation and storage options.
  • Enable new products, services and markets.
  • Provide the power quality for the range of needs.
  • Optimises asset utilisation and operating efficiency.
  • Provides resiliency to disturbances, attacks and natural disasters.

With all these unique characteristics, a smart grid can make it easier for everyone to have control over their own energy, breaking down the barriers between generators and end-users in a way that promotes economic prosperity.

Conclusion

The most critical issue the world's power systems face right now is lowering their carbon emissions. Smart grids could ensure a consistent energy supply for them by tightly integrating renewable energy into the obsolete structure of the conventional power grid.

In fact, renewable sources like wind and solar power can be redesigned to meet reliability, security, and affordability requirements. Nevertheless, according to PubMed Central's research, the current barriers are, just to name a few:

  • Social: the lack of awareness of the benefits of renewable energy.
  • Economic: competition from fossil fuels.
  • Technological: limited availability of infrastructure and facilities.
  • Regulatory: bureaucratic and administrative hurdles.

We talked in a previous article about how Qubiz developed an energy demand forecasting solution for a client along with 4 other cleantech drivers that might respond to the challenges that currently hinder the decarbonization of the energy system.

We will continue to support companies like yours to fulfil EU targets by building upon the progress that has already been made and developing effective solutions to bring the energy transition closer for both the planet’s sake and ultimately, your organisation’s prosperity.

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