Steps to the smart grid

Adrian Kimberley explains why substantial investments in smart infrastructure are required to ensure the successful implementation and longevity of renewable technologies

Since 2010, the UK has invested an impressive à‚£52 billion ($66 billion) in renewable energy, dramatically shifting the country’s dependence on fossil fuels. On a global scale, wind turbines, tidal power and solar panels are fast becoming the energy generation methods of choice in most developed countries.

But making this transition is not as simple as it seems. The technology required for creating a renewable-friendly network is available, but almost all the world’s existing energy infrastructure is designed specifically to distribute the highly predictable and controllable energy generated by fossil fuels.

Renewable energy sources are typically located in remote and often difficult-to-reach places. To efficiently manage and monitor these facilities, operators need to be able to connect and respond remotely. There are many different communication networks required for projects with geographical constraints, but a cloud-based application can alleviate this problem by using a VPN over leased lines, ensuring the systems are fast and responsive.

Using cloud-based process control software, operators can obtain data from these decentralized locations in real time. This information can be accessed by engineers on their mobile phones, enabling faster reactions to alarms, events or generation reports. Naturally, this consistent and remote plant monitoring hugely reduces maintenance and operational overheads.

Two-way communication

Traditionally, the grid was designed as a one-way system to transfer energy from a power station through a transmission network and, eventually, to the end user – and the majority of the world continues to rely on this outdated network structure. However, the introduction of renewable energy sources adds a new layer of complexity to standard grid operations.

Renewable power sources are variable by nature and as a result, the amount of power they generate cannot always be accurately predicted. In a smart grid, two-way communication should be introduced by deploying intelligent process control software.

For renewable energy to be successfully fed back into the grid, generation sources must be able to communicate with utility providers to determine whether the energy generated will fulfil the current, and future, requirements of end users. This can ensure that the renewable energy that is being generated is optimized.

This allows utility companies to predict and monitor the amount of energy that is being pushed back into the grid through these sources and to utilize other generation sources should the demand be unfulfilled.

Renewables are also forcing utility companies to handle the unique situation of microgeneration. With smart devices and software readily available and affordable, homeowners are selling renewable energy back into the grid through feed-in schemes. Smart grid technology provides an information channel in which generation data can be exchanged between utilities and their customers.

Similarly to the requirements of a smart factory, the smart grid requires controls, computers, automation and intelligent software to respond digitally to the country’s energy demands. To meet today’s needs, experts predict that the world’s energy industry requires a colossal investment of $12.9 trillion in smart infrastructure. However, the benefits are undisputable: delivering electricity in a more optimal way, from source to consumption. The benefits of a smart grid are improved efficiency and reliability of the electricity supply and, as a result, the reduction of carbon emissions.

Adrian Kimberley is Regional Sales Manager for industrial software expert COPA-DATA UK. COPA-DATA develops software for HMI/SCADA, dynamic production reporting and integrated PLC systems.

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