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Engineers Ireland: Smart power to revolutionise future use of electricity

ESB Networks working on development of revolutionary distribution grid

In the not too distant future consumers may be able to choose to use electricity at different prices at varying times of the day and night thanks to the combination of smart meters in their homes and the smart distribution networks which will deliver the power. Variable pricing could allow people to schedule tasks like electric vehicle charging or laundry for lower peak times such as afternoons or overnight.

They will also be able to decide whether they prefer to use wind or other renewable sources. Other possibilities include selling back to the grid surplus power generated by domestic wind turbines or solar installations.

All of this and a lot more besides is being made possible by the work being carried out by ESB Networks on the development of a smart distribution grid. "A smart network is defined as the overlay of advanced communications and information technology systems on a resilient energy infrastructure," explains John Byrne, smart networks manager with ESB Networks.

"For the past 80-plus years the grid consisted of a number of large centralised power generation plants with the network pushing the power out to the end user. We are now seeing more and more distributed generation in the form of wind and other renewable sources. Ireland has a very, very strong natural resource in wind but there is not one big wind farm generating the power, it comes from a large number of them and many of them are on the other side of the island to where the customers are situated." While Ireland may be blessed with its wind resource it also challenged by it. Most wind farms are too small and in locations unsuitable for direct connection to the national grid. Also, the wind doesn't blow all the time and the electricity generated is likely to disappear at any time. Many of the wind farms have to be connected to the distribution network and the network must also have access to reserve generating or storage capacity which can be brought on line at short notice to prevent costly and damaging power outages.


‘Resilient network’

“We now have an extremely resilient network infrastructure in this country,” Byrne adds. “ESB has invested €3 billion in upgrading the medium voltage distribution network. Managing transience on the network is a job in itself. You need very sophisticated IT and communications technology to give the network the required level of intelligence to deal with it.” But more is needed. The Government has set the bar very high in terms of renewables use and energy efficiency targets. The aim is to have 40 per cent of electrical energy delivered from renewable resources and 10 per cent of all domestic transport to be fuelled by electricity by 2020. By that stage a smart metering programme for homes throughout the country should also have been implemented. Achievement of these targets should in turn result in the EU mandated goals for this country of a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency, and 20 per cent of all energy used coming from renewable sources by the same date. Achieving these targets will see ESB investing up to €10 billion in the five key areas of renewable and clean generation, connected home technology, smart metering, distributed generation and electricity, and a smart network.

Smart metering has already been piloted in 10,000 homes with encouraging results. "Overall we have seen an average reduction in electricity usage of 2.8 per cent by the consumers who have had the meters installed", says Byrne. While Ireland is acknowledged as one of the most advanced countries in the world when it comes to integrating wind into its network, progress is also being made on solar energy. "We have been doing a lot of work with the Electrical Power Research Institute (EPRI) in the US in relation to solar," says Byrne. "A lot of other countries such as Germany are subsidising solar at present. This won't be the case in Ireland so it will be some time before the technology comes down in price sufficiently to make it economic in Ireland. The work we are doing with the EPRI is preparing us for that time when it comes."


While solar power is much the same as wind in terms of its intermittent nature it brings other unique challenges and opportunities according to Mark McGranaghan of EPRI. “We are working with ESB Networks and a number of collaborators on photo-voltaic access to the distribution grid. The first thing that comes up is voltage regulation. If you have a lot of generation on the system and a cloud comes over the generation disappears and the voltage on the network changes. The regulation equipment has to be able to deal with sudden changes like that.” McGranaghan also points out that solar power doesn’t deliver the same benefits as wind due to the timing of its availability.

“You don’t get the same capacity credits from solar as you do from wind as it is not available at peak periods like the evenings. You tend to need 100 per cent back up for it and its real benefit is as a substitution for fossil fuel. There are a couple of things you need to do because of this. You have to have protection systems which are robust enough to deal with disruptions and you need to use advanced distribution planning tools to model the network to figure out the protection and regulation needs.”

Ireland's leading position in smart grid development is confirmed by David Lee, executive partner for energy utilities with IBM. "What has differentiated ESB is the way they have looked at it from end to end," he says. "They haven't just engaged with one part of it, they have tried to look at everything from wind power to the smart grid and electric vehicles as part of an integrated whole. Many utilities see it as just a technology project or part of a piecemeal solution. ESB is fairly unique in this approach and it has placed them and Ireland at the forefront of internationally."

The ESB approach is geared towards the achievement of three basic objectives. “We want to improve security of supply, enable decarbonisation, and improve affordability for consumers,” says Byrne. “We put a lot into R&D. Our aim is that by 2027 we will have an active electricity network that maximises renewables usage, has smart metering in every home and business, empowers customers to play a role in load management, and enables a low carbon economy.”

John Power, director general of Engineers Ireland, says the smart grid is a prime example of the convergence between all forms of engineering and technology. "Collaboration between the digital and physical world is creating opportunities for employment and innovation and is a trend we are seeing in the projects entered in this year's Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards."