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A better connected world

The more we connect, the better our world

This eight part series will reveal how cutting-edge technology is changing the way we conduct our lives and connect with the world around us

  • Power
  • A Better Connected World

Keeping the lights on

New technology is enabling global electricity operators to reduce the impact of power outages, improve grid management and introduce renewable energy sources, with huge savings to the economy and environment.

At the height of a scorching European summer, peak production of renewable energy in Germany was running as high as 75%, and solar topped out at 50% of demand. On average, 25% of Germany’s electricity generation comes from renewable sources. It has already smashed European Union targets for 20% renewable energy across member states by 2020.

In many ways, Germany presents a model for the future supply of renewable energy and the challenges that come with it, for other markets to observe. The rise of small stations, typically using wind or sun, means power networks are no longer just distributing power from central generators, they are taking it from many broadly distributed resources. For operators, power management is an increasingly complex balancing act.

This new dynamic is forcing changes to the central control architecture in the electricity grid. Annual spending on technology to create more distributed intelligence in the grid will top $42 billion by 2017. Nowhere is the technological challenge of balancing supply and demand in the network better illustrated than in Mannheim, in Germany.

Distributed supply

Here, the innovative Model City of Mannheim (MOMA) project, part of the German government’s “energy systems of the future” scheme, has seen sophisticated ICT and gadgetry deployed in the local electricity grid to engage consumers directly with the fluctuating availability of renewable power.

The MOMA grid takes power supply from over 500 producers and distributes it to residents in Mannheim and neighbouring Dresden. The grid itself doubles as a broadband power line system, which connects up a number of in-home smart devices. One thousand residents opted to take part in the project, which started in 2010. Their appliances were hooked up to this ‘energy internet’ and they were availed of a number of software tools to monitor their usage and spending.

“The big challenge for renewables is they are not always available when you need them; sometimes the wind blows, sometimes the sun shines,” says Ingo Schoenberg, chief executive at MOMA. “The MOMA project looked to find ways to balance supply and demand, between highly volatile energy generation andintelligent energy consumption, and to improve the efficiency of both.”

MOMA instituted an ‘energy butler’ device to switch on appliances during periods when energy is plentiful and cheap. What it showed is that people will change their behaviour if they are told what the real price of energy is.
Ingo Schoenberg

By linking tariffs directly to network capacity, participants have been encouraged to use energy when availability is high and prices are low. For those not wishing to micro-manage their spin cycles, MOMA has even instituted an ‘energy butler’ to switch on appliances during periods when energy is plentiful and cheap. “What it showed is that people will change their behaviour if they are told what the real price of energy is,” says Schoenberg.

Armed with knowledge and technology, private households have saved around 10% in energy consumption, and 15% on energy bills, and the electricity operator has been able to better manage loads on the network. The MOMA findings have been used to legislate for flexible energy tariffs and a single communications platform, running both the smart grid and smart meters.

Communications network

Such technology solutions have also afforded electricity providers new ways to tackle power interruptions and improve operational efficiencies. In the US, storms and ‘critters’ play havoc with electricity supply. A study by the University of California, Berkley, in late 2004 put the annual cost of power outages on the US economy at around $80 billion.

The Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, in Tennessee, operates a service territory of around 1,500 square kilometres; the potential impact of electricity blackouts on its catchment area is around $100 million per year, based on the Berkley figure. But the EPB is not a typical US energy supplier.

In 2012, buoyed by $115.5m in Recovery Act stimulus funds from the US Department of Energy DOE, it completed upgrade work on a highly automated smart grid, fully equipped with intelligent sensors, switches and meters. Like MOMA, its grid is underpinned by a high-quality communications network; in its case, a fibre optic broadband network, on which it also runs a consumer triple-play proposition.

“This is potentially what the future of power grids looks like,” says David Wade, executive vice president of the EPB. “No other utility in the US has the same level of automation. But everything comes back to this ability to communicate. Our grid is connected at every point by our fibre network. That is what makes Chattanooga the perfect place to decide what the future is.”

Now, in Chattanooga, when a car hits an electricity pole, the EPB grid ‘self heals’; its network of 1,200 smart switches communicate via its fibre network to determine the location of the outage, and to reroute supply. February 12 saw the worst blizzards in Chattanooga for 20 years; power was automatically restored to 40,000 residents, and 36,000 were back online with the help of engineers within three days.

Previously, all 76,000 would have gone without power for eight days, reckons the EPB. Power outages in its network have reduced by 50-60% since 2012; their cost to the local economy has reduced by $50m per year. The EPB has made savings itself too – to the tune of $10.5m in repairs, asset management, truck roll and theft, it says.

This last item, the theft of power by end users, remains an issue for electricity suppliers, hitting profits hard in certain markets. Chinese tech firm Huawei has designed varied solutions to combat the new challenges of electricity supply, from broad-ranging network infrastructure projects to core platforms that deal with such localised issues as theft.

Huawei says electricity suppliers in Nigeria have been particularly vulnerable to consumer theft. Their cause has not been helped by the fact suppliers have, until now, been unable to collect accurate data about power consumption from more than 80 per cent of customers.

To tackle this, Huawei is preparing to install an automatic metering system to cover 400,000 local houses in Nigeria, supported by a high-speed data connection, and new sensors and controllers across the network. It says data from customers’ meters will be transmitted to local operators once every 15 minutes, giving them a live feed of usage within their network.

“The system will effectively improve revenue and profit for power companies,” says David He, president of marketing and solution sales at Huawei’s enterprise BG. “Instant communication systems and reliable power infrastructure maintenance is vital for efficient production and distribution of electricity. It enables early warning alerts, real-time faulty locations, self-healing mechanisms and effective load management.”

With its economic rise, China’s cities have boomed, putting strain on their legacy power networks. Zhuhai Electric Power serves 8.22 million people covering the entire land area of Zhuhai and Q Macao Island, Hengqin Island and Gaolan Island. Its quest to bring greater levels of automation to its network saw it regard and reject any number of traditional fixed and wireless technologies, citing variously issues of access, reliability, cost and capacity.

Installation of fibre optic cable across its service territory, as per the EPB solution, was considered too expensive and complicated. Instead, it opted for a trunked version of the 4G LTE standard by Huawei, combining fibre-like speeds with the relatively low cost of wireless network deployment. Like traditional two-way radio systems, the Huawei eLTE solution provides Zhuhai Electric Power with a private radio network for distribution automation communications..

Similarly, Huawei has stepped in to overhaul old lines and unreliable communications hampering electricity performance in the coastal city of Qingdao, in Eastern China. For the Qindao Power Supply Company, Huawei’s all-optical ‘XPON’ solutionhas allowed for better management of its distributed power supply, with a high degree of automation, and improved network reliability.

By monitoring data from smart terminals across its network in real-time, Huawei says malfunctioning lines can now be isolated within a few seconds and the grid can be “recovered” automatically. The Qindao Power Supply Company has reduced the duration of annual outages by 2.6 hours, to 1.1 hour per household; its annual capacity losses have dropped by 33.4GWh.

Ultimately, utilities are under pressure to reduce costs, streamline operations and meet more stringent regulations for environmental goals. Technology companies like Huawei are rising to the challenge, and delivering solutions on massive scales to create smarter electricity grids that, ultimately, deliver greener energy.

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A series exploring innovations in technology that are keeping our world connected