New generation

Smart grids to transform power generation

The world's growing population and the increasing use of renewable energies are posing unprecedented challenges for the conventional electricity grid. Intelligent systems which can accommodate renewable and distributed energy generation are a novel way of coping with these multifaceted demands.

smart grid infographics
Smart grids can accommodate intermittent and unpredictable renewable energy sources (Infographics: AG Visuel)

Smart grids are gradually being introduced around the world, notably in Europe, North America, China and other parts of Asia. While the technology still has some way to go before becoming truly widespread, demand for the new systems is expected to surge in coming years.

What is a smart grid?

The European Technology Platform SmartGrids (ETPSG), a European Commission initiative focusing, among other things, on research into the technology, came up with the following definition for smart grids: “an electricity network that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – generators and consumers and those that do both – in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies. It employs innovative products and services together with intelligent monitoring, control, communication and self-healing technologies”.

Smart grids offer a number of advantages over conventional power grids:

  • They are able to accommodate the provision of intermittently-supplied and unpredictable renewable energy sources
  • They satisfy the requirement for distributed power generation
  • They enable peak-shaving (the process of reducing the amount of energy purchased from the utility company during peak demand hours) and energy-saving by managing demand response and providing energy storage. Electric vehicles and other energy-storing appliances can be used to compensate for peaks and dips in the supply and demand of electricity, thereby helping to optimize grid management
  • Using real time information from embedded sensors, they detect and respond automatically to system problems, a process known as self-healing

Mixing the old and the new

Introducing these new grids raises a number of challenges, not least the requirement for interoperability with existing systems. Transmission assets such as transformers or switches have long lifespans and, as part of the transition towards smarter grid technology, are to be connected to a new telecoms and IT infrastructure which has a much shorter life cycle.

The IEC publishes International Standards that facilitate the integration of smart grids with existing systems. IEC Technical Committee (TC) 57: Power systems management and associated information exchange, has prepared some core Standards for realizing the smart grid objectives of interoperability and device management. Among these is the IEC 61850 series on communications networks and power utility automation.

Integrated distribution monitoring systems, which are one of the features of smart grids, require various types of sensors and transducers to help understand system conditions and to respond to disturbances affecting it. New smart sensors can work autonomously when equipped with a communication interface. Most individual sensor elements are manufactured using traditional semiconductor type processes, falling under the remit of IEC TC 47: Semiconductor devices.

Renewable energy generation is standardized under the aegis of a number of TCs, including IEC TC 82: Solar photovoltaic energy systems, and IEC TC 88: Wind energy generation systems.

The IEC also established a Systems Committee, SyC smart energy. As its name indicates, it works at a systems level and spans the activities of several TCs in the area of smart grid technologies. It supports the work of the TCs, for instance by issuing a number of documents which can then be referenced by them. It has recently published a Technical Report, IEC TR 63097 which sets out a smart grid standardization roadmap, an extensive upgrade of the initial roadmap which was first produced by Strategic Group (SG) 3 of the IEC Standardization Management Board (SMB). The document aims to highlight Standards which have been specifically designed to support the transition towards smarter energy.

Another TC working at a systems level, CISPR, the international special committee on radio interference, has issued a guide on the application of CISPR Standards in support of the introduction of smart grids. The guidance document looks at the electromagnetic compatibility of equipment connected to the smart grid, for instance smart meters or grid connected power converters.

Soaring demand worldwide

Most analysts expect the market for smart grids to surge in coming years, boosted by growing demand from China as well as from other areas of the world, notably Europe. According to B2B research consultancy MarketsandMarkets, the value of the smart grid market should rise to USD 50,65 billion in 2022, up 19,4% from USD 20,83 billion in 2017.

China has started to upgrade its electricity grid, in order to meet the requirements of its booming population. It also has to integrate renewable energy generation to meet its CO2 reduction targets. Smart grids are viewed as one of the technologies best suited to enable energy storage and distributed power and are one of the strategic emerging industries singled out in the country’s 13th five year plan (2016-2020).The plan vows to “improve the demand side management of electric power and speed up the development of smart grids”.

In Europe, smart grids have been on the political agenda for a while. The European Commission set up a task force in 2009 to advise EU member states on smart grid policy, development and deployment.

That same year saw the publication of an EU Directive on the development of a resilient and integrated energy market across member states. The directive, 2009/72/EC, “strongly recommends that electricity undertakings optimize the use of electricity, for example by providing energy management services or introducing intelligent metering systems or smart grids where appropriate”. It is part of what is commonly known as “the third energy package for an internal EU gas and electricity market”.

Member states were also asked to implement “intelligent metering systems that shall assist the active participation of consumers in the electricity supply market”. The target is for 80% of EU consumers to be fitted with smart meters by 2020.

European snapshot

In 2010, the European Commission launched a rolling review to assess the number of smart grid projects across the EU. Constantly updated, the survey aims to build a complete database of existing projects. The most recent data was aggregated in 2016. Called Smart grid projects outlook and published by the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission, the survey aims to provide a comprehensive tool “to better understand the rapidly changing scene and to inform future support policies”.

The latest edition of the survey lists 950 smart grid projects across member states. Between them, they represent a total investment of EUR five billion since the first project was launched in 2002. These installations are either R&D or demonstration projects and have not been fully deployed yet. According to the survey, “there are only a handful of projects that could actually be considered as deployment projects and are being implemented at a different pace in different member states (e.g. smart meters, sensor actuators, control systems)”.

It was decided to not include the small number of deployment projects in the survey’s figures as “it would have given a distorted picture of the level of maturity of some technologies and solutions”. The countries with the highest number of demonstration and R&D projects are Germany, the UK and Denmark.

According to Flavia Gangale, one of the authors of the survey, “more work is needed on the scalability and the replication potential of these projects before moving on to the deployment phase. We may need to further reflect on a regulatory framework that could better accommodate the novelty and specificities of smart grids and incentivize investment”.

As the survey indicates, there is still some way to go before smart grids are widely implemented in Europe. But a number of IEC Standards are paving the way for their deployment.