A group of EU-funded engineers from across the continent has created a system to help stabilise electricity grids across Europe and ensure a steady energy supply for decades to come.
© Eyematrix - fotolia.com
Generating electricity and distributing it to households, businesses and public services is an increasingly complicated business. In 2004, just over 8 % of energy consumed in the EU came from renewable sources. That figure has now doubled, and the share of renewables is as high as 36 % in Latvia and 35 % in Sweden. The shift from fossil fuels is great news for the environment, but presents major challenges when it comes to ensuring a steady energy supply.
Electricity can only be stored in relatively small quantities. That means most of the electricity generated has to be used at that moment in time. With reliable but dirty coal, network operators can plan in advance how much electricity will need to be produced on a particular day. But renewables, such as wind and solar power, are unpredictable you cannot control how brightly the sun will shine.
This means energy operators need to rely on a greater number of renewable power plants to make sure the network is covered. They need to accurately calculate the risk involved, so they can quickly respond to unexpected turns in the weather.
Liberalising the energy market
Other factors have also created instability in the network. After a number of nationalised energy companies were privatised in the late 1990s, the supply of energy became much more responsive to market forces.
If a large nuclear plant in France goes offline, for example, the real-time energy price shoots up, and any power plant from a large coal-fired station in Poland to a community-run wind turbine in Germany can sell its energy to the market. Supply problems arise when the system does not respond quickly enough, and the requisite resources are not available.
The integration of more countries, such as Turkey, into the European energy market has created further complications, as all these territories need to measure the amount of risk in the market using the same standards.
Planning for the best
To deal with these uncertainties, the team of engineers working on the EU-funded UMBRELLA project has created a toolbox of complex algorithms that help energy network operators better assess their options when it comes to predicting how much energy they will need to supply the next day, and where it will come from.
The toolbox provides a much more advanced way for coping with uncertainties in planning, such as power cuts and fluctuations in demand, explains project leader Helmut Paeschke.
The algorithms, or small software programs, also enable energy operators to give the risk involved with decisions about energy supply a numerical value. Previously, they could determine only whether a particular decision would be secure or insecure. The numerical scale will also make it easier for regulators to draw up common standards for energy networks across Europe.
Although the initial project is now over, Paeschkes team is continuing to create software that will enable the toolbox to be exported beyond Europes borders.
Our methodologies can be applied to any energy transmission system in the world, he says.