The role of virtual power plants

Jon Lawson

When it comes to integrating renewable sources into a reliable power ecosystem, Morteza Seraj provides a practical overview of how virtual power plants can provide a valuable solution.

The evolution of control software and electrical hardware solutions for renewable and distributed power generation are two major drivers for potential improvement in energy efficiency in the power industry. Combined solutions, such as virtual power plants (VPPs), move the concept on further again: they can be used to support the transition from traditional energy generation to renewables by offsetting some of the constraints and variability experienced with green power sources.

Given recent trends in the power generation sector and a corporate philosophy of contributing to a greener tomorrow, Mitsubishi Electric has intentionally focused on control and electrical solutions for renewable and distributed power generation. These are two major drivers for improved generating and operational energy efficiency in the power sector. Over recent decades, the company has engineered successful products and projects for energy from waste (EfW), combined heat and power (CHP) as well as combined cold, heat and power plants; helping them become the most efficient sources of energy generation and transformation they can be.

The other aspect of this contribution towards energy efficiency lies in how the company’s solutions help end users and small generators to operate more efficiently. Whereas one category of customer includes energy producers, the other also contains energy consumers. With integrated automation and electrical solutions, the company aims to enable both categories to operate with the highest levels of energy efficiency. It sets out to help power producers and consumers to optimise their internal consumption by offering them more efficient and reliable process control options, as well as electrical balance of plant solutions.

Are virtual power plants part of Industry 4.0?

The VPP concept wasn’t consciously developed as an Industry 4.0 solution. It is one of many evolutions in the automation and data processing path that coincides within the arena of Industry 4.0. That said, energy management and monitoring, and Industry 4.0 should not be judged as occupying two mutually exclusive spaces.

There has been and will always be the need for energy management and monitoring. The quality and capabilities of that functionality, however, are subject to continuous enhancement with further developments in data sensing, measuring, transmitting and processing technologies. The pace of this development has been exponential in the past few years preparing the ground to create more value-added solutions such as VPPs. The catch-all word for this last phase of development is Industry 4.0.

The transition to renewables

Mistubishi Electric believes that VPPs can, to a great extent, support the transition from traditional energy generation to renewables. Renewable energies, despite all their indisputable advantages do also come with considerable disadvantages, limiting the net benefit for some end users. For most users, individual renewable energy sources are quite inflexible: you have power when there is sun shining or the wind blowing, but your energy consumption patterns do not necessarily follow the sun or wind. Secondly, their availability is not fully predictable – just imagine the situation when you have a blanket dust storm in a desert where you have installed hundreds of Megawatts of solar power.

Renewable energies are of course the most environmentally friendly sources of power and are becoming cheaper to produce as well. But every professional in the power industry knows, when it comes to power, reliability of supply comes first. This was for a while where conventional power had a dominant position, flexibility. Mistubishi Electric’s Virtual Power Control, however, makes a combination of renewable energies flexible too and therefore makes them a secure source of power supply. This is done by coordinating the most economical and available energy generation and storage sources to meet a certain load at any point of time. This removes a major barrier to maximising renewable integration on the grid.

Is blockchain technology relevant?

Blockchain technology is a current hot topic and does have the potential to contribute tremendously to a transition by the power sector from a conventional centrally controlled system to a distributed and yet secure power matrix.

Since in a blockchain there is no central data storage and processing location, there are no copies; there is one single entity of any specific block of data that is distributed between different participating nodes. This unique feature can increase the robustness of the control and data processing system to outside cyber threats as one needs to copy the entire distributed system to be able to manipulate it.

So, blockchain technology can potentially be used to address the biggest concern of policy makers and regulators with respect to vulnerability of the power systems of the future to cyber-attacks. However, it is worth issuing a word of caution and saying that we are at the early stages of exploring how blockchain can be used in our industry. We should take the time and test solutions before speculating too much about the outcomes.

Taking the next step

The combination of currently available technology has the potential to make far-reaching improvements to overall energy efficiency – both from a generation capacity and also a distribution point of view. The application of the latest automation controllers, power management equipment and software solutions, including combination systems such as VPPs, can be used to integrate diverse power sources and optimise our power landscape.

Morteza Seraj is with Mitsubishi Electric