Why we should think smarter when it comes to smart grids

‘Smart grids’ have been put forward by many of the world’s governments as a key ingredient in fulfilling the global ambition of a connected world powered by clean methods. In Australia, where a notoriously unstable grid has been well-documented, smart grids have been touted as the solution to keeping the lights on even when the power drops.

However, for all the benefits, there needs to be a reality check. Arne Svendsen, Mark Andrews, Tony Morton, and Martin Groh, of international technical consultancy Vysus Group, delve into the hurdles Australia’s infrastructure has yet to overcome, and why the dream scenario of a connected grid is still a huge work-in-progress.

Before we get too immersed in the technicalities of smart grids and the influence they will potentially have on global power grids, let’s take a step back and work out exactly what we mean by that term. We see examples of ‘smart’ technology everywhere, from our mobile phones to vehicles and how we heat our homes, but it is a different proposition for complex infrastructure such as power networks.

In short, a smart grid supplies electricity to consumers through two-way communication, which allows for monitoring, analysis, and control, with the aim to overcome weaknesses within conventional grids using smart meter technology. Across the globe, utility companies are tasked with providing customers with a stable and secure energy supply, and the smart grids.

Yet the pace at which technology has emerged to facilitate this task has not been matched by that of the infrastructure and capabilities within geographical areas. And it is likely to take several years before the two are fully in sync with one another. Think of transport system upgrades as an example; yes, they may ultimately make a journey smoother, but only after a lengthy period of congestion, speed restrictions, and road or rail closures. A similar principle can be applied to implementing smart grids for power.  

Without sounding too pessimistic, grid infrastructures, particularly in Australia, are not built to be flexible. Not yet anyway. And the practicalities of essentially rebuilding vast sections reaches far beyond the engineering requirements. Though smart grids have the potential to provide a solution for keeping Australia powered, there is the risk of running before we can walk. The demand for production technology, at this moment in time, outstrips the adjustments needed on the highway. And yes, there is also the global target of net zero emissions by 2050 to factor in – the need to accelerate the transition is not to be confused with rushing.

Smart grids are to engineering what Industry 4.0 was for technology. Exciting, plenty of potential… but changing mindsets and implementing the necessary infrastructure to make the most of the opportunities it can present has not been smooth sailing. The recognised definition of “the digital transformation of manufacturing/production and related industries and value creation processes” has, at least, provided some clarity on what the concept means for business, but as for the technical obstacles of physical implementation, the way forward has been less straightforward.

Similar complications can be observed within how Australia tracks and monitors energy usage. Smart meters, for example, have been mandatory in the state of Victoria for more than a decade and a “voluntary, market-led rollout” of some 40 000 units took place in NSW in 2016, in the hope of providing consumers with the fairest, most accurate idea of their energy use cost. Despite these measures, a full rollout nationwide has been slow.

In fact, it has even been suggested that getting Australia’s grid to reach 50% of smart meter penetration – where the benefits will be most notable, according to the Australian Energy Market Commission – will take at least four or five more years, as a consequence of limited legislative guidance and consumer awareness. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that the benefits smart grids could bring, in terms of storage and directing power to where it is most needed in unforeseen circumstances, may encounter similar complications.

A lack of information is not only apparent at local level, either – many of Australia’s distribution network service providers (DNSPs) do not necessarily have all the information they ideally require about voltages and energy flows in the network from the varying sources. For example, while rooftop solar panels on domestic properties are becoming increasingly common, the effect these have on the feeder voltage profile cannot practically be monitored or modelled in real time, even with so-called ‘smart’ meters. Only basic data pertaining to generation and load is available, resulting in more granular data being missed and, ultimately, higher charges to the end user than would be the case if operations were optimised.

For a smart grid to be a stable grid, data needs to be the driver. The outcomes of specific actions made using this data also needs to be taken into account, with scenario modelling and real-time analytics being key here. With this knowledge, faults can be identified at an earlier stage, allowing for better use of capability and indeed, reduce maintenance costs which can save consumers money.

From an operational point of view, these capabilities give an indication of where improvements to grid networks could arise in the future. For instance, Vysus Group’s Promaps power system reliability software draws on information from real-time and base case studies to accurately determine the effects of new actions on focused areas of the grid. By providing a visual representation of the risks posed by inputs such as solar and wind, which are challenging for ageing grids to sustain, Promaps gives inside knowledge on likely causes and effects from these risks and unforeseen factors such as severe weather.

In these scenarios, system risk levels swing from a very high level to the theoretical lowest level, not unlike the infamous flash crashes in the US stock markets in 2010 and 2014 which wiped trillions of dollars of equity in a matter of minutes. At the time, high volume trading (in other words, consecutive trades being completed within seconds) carried amongst volatile conditions contributed to the market drop. Now imagine if the same was to happen in the Australian power grid – multiple inputs being made simultaneously, with little means of understanding the impacts, could result in millions being without power.

In Norway, where we at Vysus Group have worked extensively with grid operators to address conflicts within network boundaries, research published in 2021 points to the rollout of smart technology in the country as a “top-down initiative with economic incentives” with the aim of getting some form of control over unpredictable variables. In a similar way to Victoria’s smart meter rollout campaign, however, questions remain about the impacts of smart grids on everyday life.

The research does allude to the fact that changing habits and routines by consumers, driven by information provided by smart metering, is underway and having a positive impact. Yet to realise the ambitious target set by the European Union of reducing emissions by 55% by 2030, there is still much work to do in both the engineering sense and supporting the public in making any lifestyle changes they may need to consider in order to have the full benefit of a smart grid.

Technology such as Promaps, which provides a means of calculating the reliability of specific grid segments in near real-time, will be fundamental in a ‘smart’ implementation of a smart grid. But to fully utilise the capabilities of such technology, power grids and operators need to keep pace with the change and get the foundations secure before committing to dramatic and, if we’re being frank, potentially unrealistic, expectations.

The evolution of technology has unquestionably shaped the world we live in and to some degree, has given us a snapshot of what is ahead in the future. Renewable energy sources, as we are all very much aware of, are changing the landscape of power generation, to the point that Australia is witnessing the largest energy transition in the world and changing its grid from a linear network to something rather more complex.

For smart grid technology to really become “smart”, power businesses need to take a system point-of-view-impact approach. This means that all the technology being installed needs to be included in system impact analyses of the whole power system for evaluating the current and future power system state, and actually measure if the power system is becoming more efficient and more reliable or not.

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