The development of so-called smart grids is considered essential by many experts looking to a future where our energy is supplied by a variety of clean and intermittent renewable energy sources.
But one expert says the greatest challenge will not come from incorporating new forms of energy supply, such wind and solar farms, tidal and wave energy and the like, it will be in integrating an increasingly complicated demand equation that will be dominated by smart meters, localised generation, storage systems such as batteries and electric vehicles, and smart appliances that will be switching themselves on and off – seemingly at random.
According to Dr Lawrence Jones, the policy and regulatory affairs director for European energy giant Alstom, the grid systems of the future will be marked by increased uncertainty caused by the transition of customers from consumers to ‘prosumers,’ who will be seeking to master a range of new gadgetry including rooftop solar, electric vehicles, “smart” home appliances and in-house displays.
Dr Jones says these are going to be hard to be harder to anticipate than the current swings in demand that dominate energy markets and there will be huge amounts of digital data. “These are going to be hyper intelligent systems, and they are going to create terabytes and terabytes of data that grid operators are going to have to deal with,” Jones said.
“You make these devices intelligent in a home, tell them to respond to certain stuff. A fridge decides it’s got no more meat in the freezer so it makes itself less cold; devices programmed to achieve certain goals, such as capped bills, turn things on and off. As for the grid operator, how does he predict what his load will be when it keeps changing all the time?”
The biggest challenge may well be in having enough people with the right engineering degrees to cope with these systems and act as data miners. “That’s the wild card – the intelligence of those who operating systems,” he said.
“Today we have the ability to assume how we the load pattern tomorrow will look like. But in the next decade, when we have electric vehicles that affect load patterns, and smart appliances such as fridges responding to various signals, that’s going to create change, different load profiles and modeling becomes a big issue.”
Dr Jones said that when the current grids were built they were not designed for bi-directional movements of energy, where a system can send out and receive energy at the same time. “We need to prepare for new types of analytical models – we have too many moving parts.
He expects the network operators of the future will deal in multiple commodities – selling heat, information, bandwidth, oil and gas. “Some utilities already sell both electricity and gas, but when you add telecom bandwidth, that is going to be an interesting grid.”