Smart electricity grids: Optimised for maximum efficiency

Smart grid feature graphic (JPG) Electricity grids of the future are literally talking to themselves. Thanks to state-of-the-art information technology, all components of these grids are able to "report" their current status; including energy usage, power outages and the available amount of electricity from various sources. Components can also receive feedback from other parts of the grid, creating an interactive network capable of optimising its own energy efficiency.  

Energy efficiency is  currently a  hot topic in politics and across several industries. One of the European Union's ambitious climate and energy targets for the year 2020 includes raising energy efficiency in all EU member states by 20%. Additionally, the EU wants 20% of all electricity to be supplied from renewable energy sources.

This is where smart electricity grids are making a world of difference.

Installation of the world's first large-scale smart electricity grid began in the year 2000 in Italy: During the Telegestore Project, electric utility company Enel S.p.A. equipped about 27 million private households with digital electricity metres that collect detailed information on electricity usage. Since 2005, the smart grid has saved over €500 million in energy costs each year.

How do smart grids work?

Conventional electricity grids are unable to provide feedback to a utility company's  control centre, leaving them dependent on human supervision by a staff of technicians.

A "smart" electricity grid, however, provides a constant stream of data from digitally-enhanced components such as electricity metres in private households as well as feedback from relay stations, power plants and alternative energy sources. Each of these devices features its own IP-Address, a unique digital signature for transmitting data.  

This IP-Address enables state-of-the-art measuring units, called smart metres, to send real-time information on energy usage in private households. They determine, for example, how much electricity is used at what time of day and the peak times when power plants need to provide the most energy; and they determine if alternative energy sources are available on a local level and calculate their power output.

According to German digital communications provider Telekom, digital electricity metres in private households can decrease energy usage up to 15% by identifying "electricity leaks" and adjusting power supply flexibly according to current demand.

Nipping power outages in the bud

Daily operations of an electricity grid rest on a delicate balance between power generation and power consumption. In cases where this delicate equilibrium is upset, large-scale power outages can render entire sections of the grid inoperable for days. In July 2012, the power grid in Northern and Eastern India broke down due to an overload; it was the largest power outage in recorded history, affecting over 600 million people.

In order to prevent power overloads, inventors Petr Korba and Mats Larsson created an innovative power oscillation detection system. For their achievements, the two engineers at Swiss company ABB Research Ltd. were named as finalists for the European Inventor Award in 2011.

The system created by Korba and Larsson relies on GPS-equipped energy metres placed strategically in key locations on the electricity grid. These metres detect potentially debilitating oscillations in electrical current and send constant updates to the utility company's control centre via satellite, allowing for crucial adjustments in grid capacity in a matter of seconds.

Integrating renewable energies

The potential for flexible - and quick - adjustments is especially crucial when it comes to integrating renewable energy sources into the grid. Alternative energy generation is a vital growth market with more than 378,800 employees in Germany alone.

Unlike the constant flow of electricity generated in nuclear or coal power plants, the output of wind turbines or solar cells can fluctuate wildly depending on current weather conditions. "These are energy sources you just cannot control - yet you have to maintain the stability of the power grid," said Petr Korba.

On days with generous amounts of sunlight and wind, solar and wind energy accounts for up to half of the total electricity supply in Germany. In these cases, smart electricity grids can dynamically reduce the share of conventional energy sources in favour of alternative power. When the weather changes, the energy mix can be adjusted automatically once again.

The market: Intelligent grids, smart investments

It will take investments of up to €200 billion until the year 2020 to prepare electricity grids across Europe for the future, estimates EU Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger. According to the International Energy Agency, between €35 and €55 billion will be invested in smart grids around the world every year until 2020.

From a market perspective, intelligent power grids are bridging the gap between electrical engineering and the field of Information and Communications Technology (ICT). According to German ICT market leader, Telekom, smart electricity metres could be installed in about 40 million households connected to its communications network. A pilot project featuring smart grid technologies is currently underway in the town of Friedrichshafen.

Outlook: A highly ‘charged' subject

In the future, the entire flow of digital data could be streamed through the electrical grid. This scenario became possible thanks to the method of data transfer through electrical networks, developed by Spanish company Diseño de Sistemas en Silicio SA.

A finalist for the European Inventor Award in 2010, the technology affords transmission rates of up to 200 megabytes per second (Mbps) through electric lines and is already used in Europe, Japan and the US.

Equipped with this technology, intelligent power grids could become entirely self-sustainable information networks - an idea that has researchers "amped up" about the future.

It will take investments of up to €200 billion until the year 2020 to prepare electricity grids across Europe for the future, estimates EU Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger. According to the International Energy Agency, between €35 and €55 billion will be invested in smart grids around the world every year until 2020.

Video: Petr Korba and Mats Larsson (ABB) explain "smart" electricity grids

Petr Korba und Mats Larsson erklären intelligente Stromnetze

Video: Petr Korba and Mats Larsson (ABB) explain "smart" electricity grids

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