They will optimize the management of existing generation, transport and distribution assets and maximize their productivity and lifespan
A study of Europe’s electrical grids will show that the majority are over 30-year old and were constructed for a system where electricity is produced in large, centralised electrical plants and then transferred to the consumer, that is, unidirectional energy flows. This kind of electrical system has been a very efficient and high-quality one; however, we have lately experienced a deep change in the electrical system paradigm. It can be said that we are living a real revolution. By analysing the reasons for these changes, we find out that the transformation of the system is based on the need to protect our planet, reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and the need to use alternative, clean and renewable energy sources. The big aim is to get a low-carbon energy system, so most of the countries have started to take different measures and make changes to meet the planned objectives.
Smart Grids are necessary in order to meet objectives on renewable energy penetration and to integrate new technologies such as electrical vehicles or energy storage systems. But, what is a smart grid? It is a grid that can integrate and coordinate efficiently the needs and the performance of all the generators, grid operators and final users. We are moving from a unidirectional initial model to a bidirectional system where energy flows from the generator to the consumer and vice versa. In this new situation, new roles for citizens arise such as the figure of the prosumer —producer and consumer at the same time—. Passive consumers are now able to participate in the system as active elements of the grid. According to the EU, this figure will allow consumers to directly participate in securing their energy supply from renewable energy sources.
To achieve it, several technological advances need to be implemented both in the elements of the grid and in communication technologies. Electrical infrastructure will have to introduce new elements to improve the control of the transportation and distribution grids and advanced measurement systems such as smart meters. Energy management is another key element, the development and implementation of smart management systems will allow us to operate the system in a more efficient way, both in a global and user level. For example, we will know the price of the electricity at any time, so we will be able to adopt energy efficiency measures. The Internet of Things is having a similar impact in the energy sector as in other industrial sectors. According to Rifkin in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, the IoT will allow the convergence of energy, communications and transportation.
Summing up: I think smart grids will contribute to achieve the 3-Ds: Decarbonisation, Decentralization and Digitalization. Smart grids are expected to extensively develop this decade. Some analysts predict that in 2020, investments in smart grids will multiply by 3.5 compared to 2012 and they will not only be used to sell kWh but also to promote energy products and services.
Going slightly into more technical aspects and just as a small note, microgrids form part of the concept of smart grids. As an analogy, I consider microgrids as the first step in the smart grid concept. The CERTS defines a microgrid as an aggregator of electrical demand loads (including industrial and technological areas, large leisure centres, urban or rural areas, etc.) and microgenerators working as a sole system to provide electrical and thermal energy. That is to say, a microgrid will be made up of generation sources (mainly renewable), energy storage systems and connected electrical loads that can operate on-grid or off-grid. The development and implementation of microgrids, besides increasing the amount of renewable energy in the electrical system, will entail multiple advantages over the current energy panorama. The extensive use of microgrids will reduce the energy losses in the transmission, thanks to the closeness of the generation systems and the consumption points. Furthermore, microgrids introduce their own generation systems into medium-voltage local grids, so, with a proper internal control system, we get a more stable and efficient local grid. Finally, consumers linked to the microgrid will be a step closer to their energy independence, an aspect that will have a positive impact on the electrical bill.
Image – Atenea Microgrid at CENER