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Top technology companies are building their data centers in Denmark, not least thanks to Energinet. The country’s TSO is known for its ‘can-do spirit’ and innovative drive: Wind turbines stabilize the grid, new transmission cables connect the Danes to other markets and digitalization offers new business opportunities.
by Marc Engelhardt
Denmark is known for its beautiful scenery: From the heathland in the north to the marshland in the south, fields and forests mark its landscape. But that’s not why some of the world’s top tech companies are calling it home. Denmark also happens to be one of the most energy secure countries in the world. This is one major reason companies like Google and Apple are building their data centers there rather than elsewhere in Europe. Another is the transmission systems operator (TSO) Energinet responsible for energy security.
Energinet operates some 7,000 kilometers of power lines and cables that transmit electricity across the country and beyond. And Facebook’s Commercial Director for Energy & Infrastructure has cited the TSO’s “technical competencies, speed, and can-do spirit” as an “essential ingredient” for deciding to locate their data center in Denmark’s third-largest city of Odense. Despite the praise, Torben Glar Nielsen, Chief Technical Officer and one of three board members of Energinet, remains modest. He’s aware that Denmark has a lot to offer to the environmentally conscious Silicon Valley companies, not least the sustainability of the energy sources.
Denmark’s government has set itself an ambitious goal. “By 2020,” Nielsen says, “50 percent of Denmark’s electricity consumption will come from wind power, and by 2050, the goal is to have a 100 percent renewable energy supply. With these goals, it will eventually be impossible for traditional coal-fired power plants to survive. And low prices in the Nordic market are already making it difficult for some to keep on producing power. Plants producing from sources like biomass, biogas or hydrogen will still produce power and be important, especially in hours with little wind or sun.” For Energinet, the country’s transition means innovation is a necessity rather than an option, and the TSO sees the change as an opportunity to position itself as a pioneer in developing the energy supply of the future by using the latest in renewable technology, transnational grid connections, big data and digitally managed power transmission and distribution.
Securing a reliable power supply and maintaining grid stability remain Energinet’s most important tasks. In the past, the volatility of wind turbines and other sources of renewable energy posed a problem for the grid. So power plants not only provided the lion’s share of power, they also stabilized the grid – without their big rotating mass, the system would have run the risk of a short circuit and being shut down.
Today’s wind turbines, however, have been transformed from a potential liability into substantial contributors to grid stability. Power inverters attached to wind turbines have been reprogrammed to emulate the behavior of synchronized spinning masses, creating what’s called synthetic inertia to limit frequency variations in the case of sudden load or generation changes. “That’s one aspect,” says Nielsen, “another is that we use the advantages of the new turbines: They no longer have AC generators but converters that can switch from AC to DC and vice versa, providing us with some good system stability functions we can use in our overall grid design.”
But this still doesn’t solve the challenge of securing a power supply in times without wind, which, according to Nielsen, can add up to several days in a row. “To secure power for a relatively small country like Denmark, one important solution is to build interconnections to neighboring countries and be part of an integrated European electricity market. So, if the production capacity here is low, we import our electricity from elsewhere and vica versa.”
To provide those interconnections, new underwater transmission cables are currently being laid in all cardinal directions. A fourth connection to Norway was put into operation in 2015. And connections to Eastern Germany and the Netherlands are under way, with hopes that a 750-kilometer connection to the United Kingdom and later to an offshore wind park in the Dogger Bank will follow. Soon, Denmark will be an energy hub, which is translating into new business opportunities for Energinet. Nielsen offers a prime example: “If you have a big enough price difference between hydropower from Norway and wind power in Denmark,” he says, “not constantly but for enough hours per year, it presents an attractive business case for market players – and we get energy security on top.”
Furthermore, Energinet has been commissioned by the Danish government to run its own DataHub. The hub collects data from all Danish metering points – both production and consumption. “This data,” Nielsen explains, “is needed to secure an open and competitive market with low entry barriers. It makes it easier for consumers to change their supplier and ensures market innovation with new products and services, encouraging flexibility and the move toward a greener environment.”
While the data hub is not a part of Energinet’s core business, it belongs to the TSO’s future profile and ensures the necessary market transparency for the company to successfully profit from price differences at the electricity exchange. It also allows for a flexible demand side on the basis of a functioning market in retail and wholesale. Nielsen expects customers to use energy mostly when it’s readily available, with the demand side steered almost autonomously through the Internet of Things (IoT). Thus data from the hub replaces any traditional fuel that might have been used to gap peak demand.
As the CEO of Siemens Energy Management Transmission Solutions, Mirko Düsel knows the many ways data can fuel new business cases for TSOs like Energinet. Operating data from transmission lines and cables can be uploaded to the cloud where it’s combined with additional input from remote sensors recording temperature, vibrations or sounds. “The advantages of digitalization are immense,” says Düsel. “With operating data and remote sensors, artificial intelligence (AI) can use changes over time in sound and heat to identify a need for service.” While single assets are currently often shut down for maintenance on a fixed service schedule, such sensor information combined with AI will prolong service cycles and reduce shutdown periods – important in a business where every minute counts.
But that’s not all, according to Düsel. By evaluating sensor data on a cloud-based operating system for the IoT like MindSphere, transmission grids can increase their maximum load by 10 to 20 percent. “This might be the case in wintertime when temperatures are low and system cooling is improved,” Düsel explains. “And AI will be able to learn from these occurrences, so that we can even predict when an overload is possible and what it means for the aging of certain components.”
More capacity on existing grids is especially valuable at a time when, due to the new energy mix, overhead lines are too few. While in some rare cases, like Ultranet in Germany, an upgrade of existing lines is possible, new cables are often the only viable solution, but come at a much higher price and take far longer to complete than a digital upgrade.
For the future, the sky is the limit – or the European continent, according to Energinet CTO Nielsen. Ultimately, he would like to see Denmark as a fully European energy hub, connecting energy sources from north to south and west to east. “Today,” he explains, “a lot of wind power is already coming in from offshore parks in the middle of Europe, solar power mainly from the sunnier south and hydro from the north.”
The interconnections Energinet is building will also provide further business opportunities by making use of the time difference between the west and the east of Europe. Taking the westerly winds which are predominant in Denmark, their force might first hit the United Kingdom and, some six hours later, Denmark. “So first, we’ll transport electricity from west to east and then later from east to west.” Nielsen plans to make use of the different peaks in consumption too. “In the United Kingdom, peak demand is one hour later than in Denmark, while in Finland and Poland it’s one hour earlier – that means you can utilize your system even better.” It’s one way of saying that time really is money.
Marc Engelhardt reports from Geneva on the UN and business news.
Picture credits: Robert Attermann, Ole Christiansen, Simeon Johnke, Jan Sondergaard, Energinet
Owned by the Danish Ministry of Energy, Utilities and Climate, Energinet operates and develops the transmission system for electricity and natural gas in Denmark, with some 900 kilometers of gas pipelines and 7,000 kilometers of power lines and cables. The company operates and builds the infrastructure responsible for a transition to renewable energy and maintains one of the highest levels of security of supply in the world.
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