Steps to the smart grid

Louise Davis

Adrian Kimberley discusses the changing methods of energy generation and the infrastructure investments required to successfully implement these technologies

Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuels are not the remains of dead dinosaurs. In fact, most of today’s coal, oil and natural gas was formed millions of years before these prehistoric creatures roamed the earth.

However, one energy myth that isn’t misunderstood is the rapid depletion of these resources.

Experts estimate that fossil fuels will be completely exhausted in the next century and as a result, there is a global effort to invest in a more diverse range of energy generation techniques.

However, substantial investments in smart infrastructure are required to ensure the successful implementation and longevity, of renewable technologies.

Investing in renewables

Since 2010, the United Kingdom has invested an impressive £52bn in establishing renewable energy methods, dramatically shifting the country’s dependence on traditional fossil fuels.

On a global scale, we have also have witnessed a change in the way renewable energy is perceived in comparison to fossil fuels.

In fact, wind turbines, tidal wind power and solar panels are fast becoming the energy generation method of choice in most first world countries.

While the migration from fossil fuels to renewable energy generation may seem like the obvious thing to do, making the transition is not as simple as it seems.

The technology required for creating a renewable-friendly network is available, but almost all the world’s existing energy infrastructure is designed specifically to distribute the highly predictable and controllable energy generated by fossil fuels.

Complexities in geography

Unlike traditional energy generation, renewable energy sources are typically located in remote and often difficult-to-reach places.

To efficiently manage and monitor these facilities, operators need to be able to connect and respond remotely.

There are many different communication networks required for projects with geographical constraints, but a cloud-based application can alleviate this problem by using VPN over leased lines, ensuring the systems are fast and responsive.

Using a cloud-based process control software, operators can obtain data from these decentralised locations in real-time. This information can be accessed by engineers on their mobile phones, in real-time, enabling faster reactions to alarms, events or generation reports.

Naturally, this consistent and remote plant monitoring hugely reduces maintenance and operational overheads.

Two-way communication

Traditionally, the energy grid was designed as a one-way system to transfer energy from the power station through a transmission network and eventually, to the end user – and the majority of the world continues to rely on this outdated network structure.

However, the introduction of renewable energy sources adds a new layer of complexity to standard grid operations.

Renewable power sources are variable by nature and as a result, the amount of power generated by these sources cannot always be accurately predicted. In a smart grid, two-way communication should be introduced by deploying intelligent process control software.

For renewable energy to be successfully fed back into the grid, the generation sources must be able to communicate with utility providers to determine whether the energy generated will fulfil the current, and future, energy requirements of the end users.

This can ensure that the renewable energy that is being generated is optimised. This allows utility companies to predict and monitor the amount of energy that is being pushed back into the grid through these sources and utilise other generation sources should the demand be unfulfilled.

Renewable energy is also forcing utility companies to handle the unique situation of microgeneration - with smart devices and software readily available, and affordable - homeowners are taking energy generation into their own hands by selling and renewable energy back into the grid through feed-in schemes.

Unlike the traditional grid, smart grid technology provides an information channel in which energy generation data can be exchanged between utilities companies and their customers.

Similarly, to the requirements of a smart factory, the smart grid requires controls, computers, automation and intelligent software to respond digitally to the country’s energy demands.

To meet today’s needs, experts predict that the word’s energy industry requires a colossal investment of £10 trillion in smart infrastructure. However, the benefits are undisputable.

Put simply, delivering electricity in a more optimal way – from source to consumption. The benefits of a smart grid are the improved efficiency and reliability of the electricity supply and, as a result, the reduction of carbon emissions.

Adrian Kimberley is with COPA-DATA UK

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