SmartGrids: rethinking Europe’s electricity grids

Future: System operation will be shared between central and distributed generators. Control of distributed generators could be aggregated to form microgrids or ‘virtual’ power plants to facilitate their integration both into the physical system and into the market. Source: European Technology Platform SmartGrids
Future: System operation will be shared between central and distributed generators. Control of distributed generators could be aggregated to form microgrids or ‘virtual’ power plants to facilitate their integration both into the physical system and into the market. Source: European Technology Platform SmartGrids

The adage “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” may soon be relegated to the annals of history – at least in reference to Europe and its electricity delivery. For all practical purposes, Europe’s electricity grid works. But ever-increasing energy demand and the introduction of green energies are calling for it to be updated. The European technology platform (ETP) SmartGrids is examining how best to meet this challenge.

When you buy a car, it is with the understanding that it will not last forever. Depending on frequency of use, wear and tear and proper maintenance, a new car may last a decade or more. But at some undetermined point along the way, the engine will give out and the vehicle will need to be replaced. On a larger scale, Europe’s energy grid is similar: though it currently functions, increased demand paired with Europe’s ambitious goals of integrating renewable energy and increasing security of supply and competiveness mean there is no way around an upgrade.

SmartGrids was set up in 2005 precisely in order to establish a consistent vision for the European power networks of 2020 and beyond. But its greatest and most promising ambition is to transform this vision into practice. By its most rudimentary definition, a “smart grid” would supply electricity to consumers using digital technology more cost and energy efficiently, and offer a two-way energy flow with the integration of renewables.

Classic grids were designed for a one-way flow of electricity and are unable to connect large-scale distributed energy resources (DER). They are essentially intended for systems in which electricity comes from large centralised facilities, such as coal, hydropower, nuclear or gas-powered plants, and though these plants typically have good economies of scale, if a local sub-network generates more power than it consumes, the reverse flow can raise safety and reliability issues. These problems of interdependence came to the fore in November 2006 when a widespread power outage left 10 million Europeans in eight countries (AT, BE, DE, ES, FR, HR, IT, NL) in the dark. A smart grid could more aptly manage this type of cascading power failure.

The increased efficiency and reliability of a smart grid would also save consumers money and help reduce CO2 emissions. Photovoltaic panels, small wind turbines or micro-hydro generators connected to buildings could be plugged into the grid. Other benefits of a modernised electricity network would include the ability for householders to reduce power consumption during peak hours, by automatically adapting offtake to their personal needs.

Within the SmartGrids organisational framework are four working groups that aim to create a community of experts representing different stakeholders, and to encourage the sharing of experiences and best practices among front technology companies, utilities and researchers. Maher Chebbo, chairperson of the SmartGrids Demand and Metering working group, prefers to look at the overall project vision as a market study, particularly in terms of potential return on investment. “This return is two-fold”, he explains. “On one side, there are the quantifiable savings in terms of cost of pollution, overall energy consumption and the price of being unable to meet demand. On the other side are qualitative benefits such as increased competitiveness for Europe, greater security of supply, greater grid reliability and a better environment due to renewable energy.”

Consumers taking the lead?

Perhaps the greatest change produced by the electricity grids of the future will be the consumer role shifting to one of ‘prosumer’: capable not only of consuming, but also producing power. Consumers have traditionally had a passive relationship to electricity and the grid. With SmartGrids in place, electricity customers will be able to interact with the grid like they do on today’s telecommunications market. They will be able to trace more precisely their consumption and even obtain contracts better adapted to their needs and requirements.

One concrete advantage of tomorrow’s networks will be the advent of smart meters. These little modules can read and interpret energy consumption meticulously, providing an incentive to customers to shift energy use to off-peak hours. Prosumers will also be able to use the Internet to track their hourly consumption and pass on this data to their provider via a web portal or their meter. Depending on individual preferences, it will also be possible to use only electricity generated by renewal energies, a need that the present network cannot meet. Maher Chebbo expects to see concrete results by 2015, by which time about 50% of Europe will be fitted with smart meters.

Changing the infrastructure does not come cheaply: for example, replacing 30 million meters with smart meters would take eight years and cost €4 billion in terms of equipment, operation and service costs, according to Maher Chebbo. However, in many countries including Italy, Sweden, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, utility companies have already installed a number of ‘smart’ electricity meters in many homes to encourage customers to use electricity at night or on weekends, when overall demand is lower. Significant price reductions in off-peak time are an incentive for users to better allocate their energy consumption.

Renovating the transmission and distribution networks is particularly complicated because it involves an incredible number of actors across a wide scope of industries. The high voltage grid lines are old, and the transmission system companies right now have no incentive to spend money upgrading them. With sponsorship from the European Commission and governments, SmartGrids initiatives are looking to bring together industrial actors to provide the necessary incentives and funding to expedite the transition.

Active demand: addressing future electricity needs

SmartGrids brings together several projects that offer the EU expertise in updating the grid. One such project is Address ¬ – Active Distribution networks with full integration of Demand and distributed energy RESources. Comprising 25 partners from 11 countries, this project is closely examining the entire electricity supply chain to define a comprehensive commercial and technical framework for the development of ‘active demand’ within the SmartGrids project.

‘Active demand’ is the proactive participation of domestic and small commercial consumers in the energy market and in the provision of services to power system participants. Address is working principally on how to successfully overhaul the technical and commercial framework.

“We are hoping to advance the SmartGrids vision by demonstrating that active distribution networks have to be based on an intelligent and distributed control approach,” says Paola Petroni, Address project coordinator.

To enable the emergence of active demand, Address partners are seeking technical solutions both directly in homes and offices and at the global power system level and are trying to identify possible barriers against the development of active demand. In an effort to exploit its benefits, they are also seeking to identify the potential returns for the different power system participants in order to develop appropriate market and contractual mechanisms. They are currently analysing accompanying measures to deal with societal, cultural and behavioural aspects.

“This will not remain just theory,” Paola Petroni explains. “The proposed solutions will be validated in three complementary test sites with different geographical and demographic features. The results from these test sites will involve hundreds of people and will help measure the quality of the work carried out by Address.”

Amy Shifflette


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