Friday, 9 May 2008

EU money is on smart grids

Intelligent electricity generation and distribution is essential to make the EU's 2020 renewable energy target writes Stephen Gardner of Climate Change Corp. (, an independent news website, dedicated to providing high quality news and analysis on climate change to companies around the world.

Europe's energy grids are ripe for renewal.

Like steam railways, they are an infrastructure from another age. They are creakingly inefficient, hopelessly wasteful and liable to break down, as they did in London in August 2003, when an early evening blackout trapped people in lifts, halted transport systems and shut down 60 percent of the London Underground.

The grids are also ill-equipped to deal with the environmental and energy challenges facing the world, chiefly climate change and security of supply. In fact, on both counts, the present energy infrastructure is part of the problem. Power generation is one of the main causes of greenhouse gas emissions, while the current supply model of a few generating plants supplying electricity to wide areas is vulnerable.

This was shown when North America suffered – like London, in August 2003 – its worst ever blackout. The cause was a single Ohio power plant failing because of a demand surge, causing a cascade effect resulting in the shutdown of more than 100 power plants. It seemed to prove the words of Bill Richardson, United States energy secretary under Bill Clinton, who called his country a "superpower with a third world electricity grid".

Fortunately there is a vision for a cleaner, leaner energy future. A European Union-backed research consortium known as SmartGrids has published a blueprint for a power system that will be "highly reliable, flexible, accessible and cost effective." Smart grids, says the consortium’s Pau Rey, are “a concept that involves adding intelligence to the electricity networks".

Power to the people

The key element of a smart grid is that, unlike a dumb one, it will be able to take power from multiple sources and distribute it according to demand so that optimum efficiency is achieved. There will be less reliance on massive power plants. Energy will be generated locally and fed into ‘intelligrids’ organised at municipal level, with surpluses being sold to other areas, according to demand.

Renewables will provide a far greater share of power than today. A farmer might have a wind turbine on his or her land, or a generator producing power from flowing water. Households might have mini wind generators on the roof. The goal, as Spencer Abraham, another former US energy secretary, recently said, is "a two-way electricity grid where homes or businesses can sell their surplus power back to the grid".

Sophisticated software that accurately measures demand will monitor the network. Homes and offices will have meters that respond to peaks and troughs. The future grid has been compared to an 'energy internet' with 'user-generated' electricity feeding into it from every direction. US economist Jeremy Rifkin has christened the future power infrastructure the "intergrid". Management of it, he has said, will be "the next IT revolution."

Highly charged

However, getting from the energy inefficient present to the energy-optimised future will be a major challenge. To begin with, it will be expensive, costing, according to the International Energy Agency, 750 billion euros over the next three decades.

Massive infrastructure work is needed to adapt grids so they can accommodate distributed, rather than centralised, power generation. The EU has seven million kilometres of cable, and four million transformers, says Hans de Keulenaer, manager of Leonardo Energy, a platform for sharing information about advances in electrical power. Grids are organised across wide areas and are supplied by centralised power plants, compared to the decentralised smart grid vision. "That is not going to change overnight," de Keulenaer says.

A major overhaul is also needed to interconnect Europe's national grids. Notwithstanding the creation of a European single market, power generation remains largely a national concern. Less than five percent of electricity is traded across borders, de Keulenaer estimates.

Interconnecting European grids will increase the potential for use of renewable power. Spain, for example, may be able to produce more solar power than it can consume, and can send the excess to the chilly north. At present, interconnection limitations mean this is not possible.

Role for renewables

Greenpeace estimates that renewable power can meet a perhaps surprising 50 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050. Smart grids and interconnection have "a huge role to play",says Sven Teske, one of the authors of Energy Revolution, a joint report from Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council, published in 2007 and due to be revised and republished in late 2008.

Like anything else involving vast expenditure, progress on overhauling EU energy infrastructure has been slow. But, says Teske, the pressing issues of climate change and security of supply mean this is changing.

Political targets are key, such as the EU’s aim, declared in March 2007, for 20 percent of energy demand to be met from renewable supplies by 2020. For this to happen, the period between 2010 and 2020 will need to see substantial structural change, says Teske.

Hans de Keulenaer agrees a "renewable infrastructure" needs to be installed. This will enable renewable energy to be fed into the grid from multiple sources, from large-scale installations such as offshore windfarms, to multiple small-scale sources, such as solar panels and rooftop mini wind turbines.

These energy sources are not constant – the sun does not always shine – which can create problems when renewables are scaled up to meet a significant proportion of total demand, says Pau Rey of SmartGrids. At present, "there is no capacity" for handling the renewables revolution. Current grids are "decades old and equipment specifications are out of date", he says.

Multiple challenges

Furthermore, de Keulenaer cautions that the future electricity network based on smart grids will face obstacles, from the lobbying power of the conventional power industry, to ineffective politicians, to communities who do not see why they should accommodate a major wind farm or solar power installation so that demand can be better managed on the other side of the continent. "It always takes longer than you expect", de Keulenaer says, pointing out that Belgium is only now starting work on offshore wind capacity after years of discussion.

Nevertheless, SmartGrids is in the final stages of preparing an initial deployment strategy to make the ‘intelligrid’ a reality. According to Greenpeace’s Teske, "it will be tight" for the EU to start decentralising its power infrastructure to accommodate renewable generation and meet its 20 percent by 2020 renewables commitment. But, he concludes, "I’m optimistic".


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