The need to replace fossil fuels with renewables and replace high electricity consumption and wastage with more energy efficient systems means there will need to be new kinds of grids.
Or rather, grids will have to adapt. Handling distributed generation resources like solar, wind, EVs, demand response and energy storage, and co-ordinating them, from high voltage transmission level down to PV plant monitoring to the smart meters that are being increasingly rolled out, is going to be a tough balancing act.
Solar advocates and industry groups rightfully point to reluctance from some utilities to embrace renewables, sensing an existential threat to business models and revenues. However, it is also undeniably true that integrating variable renewable energy, coping with new technologies like rapid chargers for EVs and keeping the distributed network of the future stable presents a challenge.
“It seems that every day we read new stories of declining electricity demand due to the rapid expansion of both energy efficiency and distributed generation. Over the past decade, consumers have increasingly adopted distributed energy resources (DERs), which has had significant impacts on the bulk power grid and distribution operations,” says Omar Saadeh, grid and distributed resources analyst at GTM Research.
Especially in the US, increased adoption of DERs at household level has obviously run alongside mandated programmes to stimulate larger scale distributed resources like utility-scale PV.
“Amidst all this substantial ongoing change, utilities are mandated with maintaining the delivery of reliable electricity – and they’re rightfully concerned. The variability of distributed and renewable generation produces significant operational challenges, such as two-way power flows, balancing discrepancies and so on – creating a higher demand for rapidly deployable grid flexibility,” Saadeh says.
The key to a smarter grid will rest therefore on how well the grid can respond and how not only its operators, but also the constituent branches of the distributed network, deal with information and react.
Big Data is a relatively loose buzzword that either means more than a terabyte – 1,000GB – of data, or can be taken to mean data too rich and vast to be processed by conventional techniques. In the instance of the grid and distributed energy resources, it is apt for the masses of inputs and variables that need to be taken into account.
For instance, Ragu Belur, one of the co-founders of microinverter and energy management specialist Enphase points out to PV Tech Power that his company collects around 850GBs of data daily, from a quarter of a million systems in 80 different countries.
Components of a distributed network, while not necessarily tied to each other with power cables, will be tied together by IT. To drop in another currently popular phrase, a network that can react predictively and in real-time to technical considerations and electricity consumption and production patterns will equate to – as one company interviewed called it – an “energy Internet of Things”.