David Pitcher, UK Country Manager for Power Plus Communications, a smart grid and meter communications network specialist, outlines the opportunities and challenges ahead for distribution network operators in the UK.
By David Pitcher, UK Country Manager Power Plus Communications
The UK is moving towards a smart grid model for its energy market. This intelligent power generation and distribution system will drive a fundamental change in the way we consume energy, automatically balancing and controlling supply and demand to maximise use of energy at minimal cost.
The communication infrastructure is the beating heart of the smart grid concept, empowering customers to play a far more active role and take control of their energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Consumers will also become generators, using micro-generation, such as micro-CHP, photovoltaic roof panels to produce their own electricity, and selling excess to the grid. At the same time, the UK market is gearing up for the introduction of thousands more electric cars, as government incentives help to make them a viable option for consumers.
Yet the electricity grid was never designed to accommodate these additional pressures. The resulting need for more flexible generation capacity will put an added strain on already overloaded generation assets, as well as on the transmission equipment.
This is the challenge for the UK’s distribution network operators (DNOs). A pre-requisite for a stable and effective smart grid is the ability for network operators to have crystal-clear visibility on the status of their networks, supported by detailed, real-time information on hotspots and points of stress within the grid.
DNOs must also ensure that the voltage on the networks remains stable and within the appropriate parameters via dynamic voltage regulators that can be controlled from a central location.
Role of communications networks
The communications network is also the smart grids life-support system. Broadband powerline (BPL) technology, already widely deployed in Germany, could soon be providing a vital supporting communications infrastructure for the smart grid, and one that could be critical for DNOs.
With BPL, every power line becomes a broadband data interface and power grids turn into intelligent systems, connecting to meters in homes and businesses.
Because BPL uses the existing power networks, getting the grid ready for the technology is a relatively straightforward task. What’s more, it eliminates the need for additional networks, support services or third-party approvals, and reduces investment costs.
As well as relatively low set-up costs, a BPL-enabled smart grid has some clear advantages in terms of savings. Remote metering will give consumers a very detailed, real-time view of their actual consumption.
BPL will provide the technology to enable suppliers to introduce more flexible tariffs. Access to this broader range of tariffs should also encourage consumers to reduce their peak-time consumption, reducing the need for extra plants to cope with demand. These same carbon-belching plants could then be replaced by cleaner sources of renewable energy.
Crucially, BPL is not a static technology: as an internet-protocol-based communication channel, it is flexible enough to support a wide variety of additional smart grid applications as they are developed and rolled out.
This flexibility makes an ideal solution for building a communication infrastructure for smart grids in highly populated areas such as cities, where densely populated areas make wireless solutions a complicated option.
Cities as money makers
Cities themselves represent one of the lucrative investment opportunities for companies ready to capitalise on the possibilities offered by the smart grid. Around the world, ‘smart’ cities are appearing, designed to promote behavioural change among citizens and businesses by creating a local best-practice model for a more sustainable, lower-carbon approach to living and working.
One of the most successful examples is Smart City Mannheim, Germany’s first smart city, where every household will soon be connected to a city-wide smart energy network.
Smart city developers have been quick to recognise the potential of these opportunities, with first movers already establishing a strong foothold in this space.
A partnership between the DNOs and BPL communications providers would be an important step towards reducing the UK’s carbon footprint by supporting the integration of renewables. It could also generate significant benefits for the DNOs themselves, enabling them to generate new revenue streams if they have the strategic vision to grasp the opportunity.
DNOs to play central role
DNOs will play a central role in the upcoming smart grid, and this role needs to be underpinned by a very proactive approach. Building, operating and controlling the communications infrastructure themselves will give them a unique opportunity to play a very important role in the smart grid's development.
The significant amounts of funding made available by Ofgem and the Low Carbon Network Fund to support smart grid trials will be essential in helping DNOs to build their skills in smart grids against a backdrop of rapidly changing circumstances.
It will also give them the chance to learn from experience, building up vital skills by installing new technologies on segments of the networks and then working to understand their capabilities and their limitations. It will also put them in a very strong position to profit financially from the vast opportunities that will be presented by the smart grid in the next 10 to 15 years.
The smart grid rollout will bring about a huge change in the way we look at our electricity networks, marked by a power swing in favour of the consumer. Broadband powerline technology will be at epicentre of this seismic shift, using intelligent grid technology to plan the UK’s future around a cleaner, greener, more efficient model.
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