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Can Smart Grids Help Solve the Global Energy Crisis?

Dec 7, 2022

The energy grid is a modern marvel. Nevertheless, its analog nature has proven to be inadequate for today’s energy demand. In order for energy companies to stay competitive, grid infrastructure needs a digital transformation. Smart grid technology can help us cut down on energy consumption, minimize waste, and even integrate new technologies more efficiently. Even more importantly, a smarter grid can help us navigate complex problems, like today’s energy crisis.
Can Smart Grids Help Solve the Global Energy Crisis?

Can Smart Grids Help Solve the Global Energy Crisis?

A More Efficient Grid Will Help

While a smart grid won’t suddenly end the war in Ukraine, it could significantly cut down on energy losses, which means less need for imported fuels and therefore less exposure to price fluctuations. Currently, electrical grids could be much more efficient. Specifically, transmission and distribution (T&D) losses can vary from as little as 5% to as high as 12%. A good target number is 6-8%, which is only possible with well-maintained systems.

However, an intelligent grid could minimize losses even further, especially when coupled with more efficient transmission technologies. What has to change to make the grid smarter? Currently, most grids depend on automated load balancing to distribute electricity. However, analog components lack knowledge of what other lines and systems can do. An intelligent grid would be able to reroute transmission according to the most efficient path and leverage multiple transmission methods to minimize waste.

A Smarter Grid Can Cut Congestion

Another problem with the grid is congestion. Congestion occurs when a particular transmission line is overloaded. An analog grid, however, often creates the same problem on another line. This can create a cascading failure, where one line becomes overloaded, and the attempt to offload energy to another line creates yet another overload, forcing all lines to shut down until distribution can be performed safely. The only solution is to cut off some customers to avoid a complete overload.

Congestion costs energy operators billions of dollars every year. With smarter balancing and distribution methods, congestion could be mitigated considerably. Analog systems will typically use the highest throughput connection until it gets close to failure rather than intelligently pulling power from other sections of the grid to balance the load. Intelligent grids will also be able to use predictive analytics to minimize congestion. Picture a grid that learns about its daily behavior to where it can accurately anticipate peak loads.

A Smart Grid Will Integrate Renewable Energy

A better grid is necessary now that more energy is coming from renewable sources. Although we need to invest more in green energy, these sources present a unique problem. They do not always work. Wind power is generated when the wind blows, while solar power is null at night. Current grid systems will simply take the power generated from these green sources and turn off certain fossil fuel generators. We need a smarter approach to integrating green energy.

An intelligent grid could leverage weather data to best predict when green energy sources will be active and how much power they will output. Instead of turning off generators randomly based on local demand, a digital grid could prioritize the dirtiest generators to maximize the positive impact of green energy. Another issue with green energy is its consumption. Green energy is often consumed locally. However, the best sites for solar or wind power may be far from population centers.

Power Storage Solutions Make the Grid Smarter

Energy storage must accompany green energy in order to make the grid smarter and more efficient. Right now, there is very little energy storage on the grid. However, smart cities have realized that energy storage will be vital to their sustainable future. Victoria, Australia is aiming for 6.3GW of energy storage, while New York City has a target of 6GW by the year 2030. With local energy storage, congestion is greatly reduced.

In addition, storage helps to offset the awkward production schedules of renewables. Solar power can fill batteries during the day, while they discharge energy at night. Energy storage could also complement existing power generation systems. For instance, power from regular power plants could be fed into battery systems overnight to prepare for peak loads during the day, minimizing the risk of overload. Alternatively, storage could step in when the grid decides to cut off customers to avoid an overload.

The Current Energy Crisis Highlights the Need for Digital Transformation

Energy prices are extremely high, and many countries are facing a shortage of energy in the coming months as winter looms. The war in Ukraine has resulted in Russia shutting off its gas and oil lines to western Europe. As a result, prices for energy have soared. Anytime an energy market is highly dependent on a single source, situations like these can arise. However, the impact could be reduced with a quality grid and digital technology.

Whenever there’s an energy supply shortage, energy losses must be kept to a minimum. With today’s grids, renewable energy is wasted. Energy must be rerouted intelligently to avoid overloading lines that previously saw less use. Businesses must also look to consume less and communicate their needs to the grid in more intelligent ways. Unfortunately, Europe has not put enough investment into its grid, resulting in a potential grid collapse.

The Middle East Can Compensate for European Grid Weaknesses

The European grid is the largest continuous grid in the world. However, Europe lacks smart connections beyond its borders. Nations that generate an energy surplus cannot readily move energy to the countries that consume the most. This is why Europe must import large volumes of gas and oil to produce electricity instead of buying power directly. High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) lines have proven to be highly efficient and overcome many of the weaknesses of AC distribution, but there aren’t enough.

European dependence on fossil fuels from the east has proven to be a fatal flaw. Now, European countries are turning to the Middle East and North Africa to diversify their energy sources. Building capacity for HVDC and renewable energy today will mean more European customers tomorrow. The MENA region is a prime candidate for solar power, which will prove invaluable for a modern grid. A future where the MENA region becomes a major energy exporter to Europe is not out of the question.

Decentralized Energy Is Key to Overcoming Crises

The traditional grid model typically centralizes energy around a handful of large power plants. Power travels through a few high-capacity AC links and rarely flows in the opposite direction. This is precisely what is crippling countries now as energy has become scarcer. In a modernized system, energy would flow more freely across a wider variety of power lines to reach its destination, no matter how far away. In addition, power generation would be more decentralized thanks to green energy production.

Although more infrastructure is needed to create a truly smart grid, there are simple upgrades that can be done in the meantime to minimize losses, improve efficiency, and ready the grid for expansion.

What Does It Take to Make the Grid Digital?

A digital transformation in the energy sector requires investments in several technologies. We need much more data collection in order to optimize the grid. New infrastructure is required, but not more of the same that we currently use. Programming and AI will also play an important role. Finally, more variety in energy production, including residential generation from solar or wind, will be vital.

Infrastructure Investments

Efficiency can be squeezed out of every possible device. Smart transformers can shave 5% off of energy losses. Building a wider variety of power lines, including HVDC lines, can give power alternative paths and make it easier to balance the overall load on the system. Energy storage and additional renewable sources will give the grid more flexibility.

Data Makes Grids Smart

Smart meters of all kinds are essential to creating a smarter grid. These devices give power management devices a better picture of power consumption and patterns. Meters on transmission systems can manage loads better to ensure balance across the system. Digital relays can route power more efficiently as they can be instructed by programming rather than only executing their designed analog function.

Automating the Grid

With data and smart devices, computer programs can control the grid rather than analog components. Analog hardware is specifically designed to perform a function; for instance, shutting off power to a line when it exceeds its allotted throughput. Smart digital hardware can be programmed to perform that function according to other parameters. This gives greater flexibility. Once all of these devices are connected, they can be automated as well using AI programming.

Before you can build a whole new grid, you need to test it out on a smaller scale. SAAB RDS Microgrid and Smart Grid Open source research platform can be used to improve grid integration of renewable energy sources by implementing automated analytics, advance situation awareness, and improve overall energy efficiency. Built using open platforms and technologies from leading companies, this solution is ideal for clean energy research.

Contact SAAB RDS to learn more about how we can help with your digital transformation in energy.