In many parts of the world, electricity systems have already moved some way from centralized systems that simply distributed power one way from large and remote generating stations, through transmission and distribution grids to consumers. But new, smarter patterns – including some or all of decentralized generators, bi-directional electricity flow, electricity (and heat) storage, demand-side response and smart (digital) system management – are still being developed, refined and adopted.

This is a time of innovation and experimentation, where new system designs are still being developed and tested, driven by the extraordinary ingenuity of power professionals.

Some examples. In the UK, Keele University has appointed Siemens to turn its campus of 350 buildings into Europe’s largest demonstration of a smart energy network. Siemens will use a mix of technologies from several suppliers in this ‘real world’ site to research smart energy technologies and services in partnership with business and industry. Funded by UK and European governments, the project will involve the digitalization of electricity substations, the installation of smart meters and home controllers, and 5 MW of new local renewable generation.

Other bespoke systems are already in place. At a smaller scale, and 1500 metres up a mountain, visitors to the Austrian Alpine Association’s Hochleckenhaus shelter in the Höllengebirge can enjoy the benefits of a combined solar PV and energy storage system, with a sophisticated energy management system that ensures 90 per cent of the hut’s electricity needs are met by renewables. Installed by the Germany’s QINOUS, the system is said to be the most advanced off-grid network in the Alpine region.

In the US, the International District Energy Association (IDEA) reports that delegates to its latest conference on microgrids were able to visit five systems in Boston in which district heating/cooling systems now also include smart power systems. These include university and medical campuses served by familiar cogeneration units that distribute steam and chilled water to groups of buildings, some with load-shedding, blackstart capabilities and island mode operation – with the added smart microgrid dimension.

None of these systems is ‘standard’; each is a one-off solution to local energy loads; and some are experimental. The development of a range of new ‘normals’ in energy supply systems continues.