Life on the edge
Decarbonisation is a priority for tackling climate change. The coupling of an increasingly decentralised power grid and advanced new technologies present an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate energy transition. Michael Weinhold, head of technology and innovation at Siemens Smart Infrastructure, outlines how innovation at the grid edge will be a key component in delivering a more sustainable future.
Never before has the human race been so aware of its impact on the planet that sustains it. Human activity has caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which projects that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052.
But, as the unstoppable rise of renewable energy joins forces with the growing power of digital technologies, the framework for a more sustainable, versatile, efficient and inclusive energy system is taking shape.
A formerly very passive unidirectional grid edge is now a very active bi-directional one. Renewable energy has been a game-changer, a revolution.Michael Weinhold, head of technology and innovation at Siemens Smart Infrastructure
The sharp decline in the cost of renewable energy, and a huge increase in its share of the global power supply, is changing the energy matrix for good. As residential, industrial and commercial consumers seize on decreasing costs and add their own behind-the-meter resources, such as solar panels, combined heat and power plants, home batteries, and electric vehicles, grid management is also becoming increasingly complex.
“When I trained as an engineer in the 1980s, energy management systems are supervising only 1000 or so power stations in Germany,” says Michael Weinhold, head of technology and innovation at Siemens Smart Infrastructure. “That was reflected in a monopolistic energy system - a top-down unidirectional relationship with the consumer. That was okay because demand was quite predictable and generation controllable.”
“Now, solar and wind generation have grown rapidly, and we have supermarkets and homes where the roofs are covered with PV, meaning that a formerly very passive unidirectional grid edge is now a very active bi-directional one. Renewable energy has been a game-changer, a revolution.”
From consumer to prosumer
The proliferation of renewable power plants, both small and large-scale, is driven partly by political commitments to decarbonisation made by major economies. It is also due to the accessibility and affordability of PV and battery technologies, and by the ability for small power generation facilities to be connected to the power grid.
Government feed-in systems, set up to reward renewable power generation, have encouraged a rapid scaling up of investment in wind turbines, PV plants. The reduction of the feed-in rewards are now pushing the application ofbattery technologies to increase the self-consumption of local generation. The result, a more decentralised power matrix with many more layers of complexity, sees increasing numbers of consumers starting to produce energy to feed it into the grid.
At the grid edge, where the multiple new sources of power meet the ever-growing sources of electricity demand, that complexity must be carefully managed.
New technologies are important because we now have massive complexity in the system.Michael Weinhold
“New technologies are important because we now have massive complexity in the system,” remarks Weinhold. “With sustainability targets and the ramping up of these technologies, they have suddenly become serious components in the system. So, they need monitoring and controllability. Fortunately, it has gone hand in hand with the advancements in connectivity, computer technologies and data analytics, which allow us to monitor and run analytics on PV and wind plants, for example, and will help with the development of smart grid and smart building technologies.”
If complexity is the cost, the benefits come in the form of a more robust and flexible, but still reliable power grid, falling costs and a lower carbon footprint.
“Distributed and central power generation are working together, so there is always back up if one source of power fails,” Weinhold explains. “Our roadmap is direct and indirect electrification enabled by digital technologies. Different users, whether they are industrial plants, small communities, city districts, campuses or private households, will have different needs and different technologies. All systems have to work together to pool power efficiently.”
Smart grid edge technologies accelerate the energy transition.Michael Weinhold
The grid edge is where the grid meets the end consumer, but it is also where smart technologies are being introduced to guide energy flows and balance supply with the demands of buildings, industry and private consumers. These technologies not only include local consumption and production systems, but also the smart meters, energy management systems and battery and other energy storages. They are the systems that provide the data and analytics to enable electric vehicles, heat pumps, solar panels, building controls and smart appliances to be fully integrated into a more sustainable energy matrix.
A major challenge it has to overcome is the intermittent nature of renewable energy supply, which has to be successfully incorporated into a balanced system to meet growing demand from the electrification of heating and mobility infrastructure and the digitalization itself.
“Smart grid edge technologies accelerate the energy transition,” Weinhold says. “We are working with our customers to analyse where they can raise efficiency and how to flexibly operate industries to accommodate the variable output of renewable energy.
Merging streams of innovation
Siemens has fixed its eyes firmly on the grid edge in an effort to assess how it can serve the crucial function of achieving sustainability in a decentralised power matrix. The steps that different countries need to take - and are able to take - vary greatly. Siemens, in collaboration with TU Berlin and the University of Oxford, recently proposed a readiness index, put forward in a recent white paper - ‘Driving the Energy Revolution’, which is an essential guide for both and corporations.
The index contains an extensive range of indicators to help identify both barriers and opportunities in the rollout of new technologies. Providing a clear pathway towards smart grid edge capability is essential because of the ever-increasing pace of innovation.
“There is a lot of knowledge sharing going on globally and this helps to push a higher speed of development,” says Weinhold. “Innovation is still hot in each step of the value chain. The challenge has to be looked at in detail and managed, so we are using, for example, machine learning in substations to learn how the downstream nodes are behaving, so there’s no overloading.
There are many challenges ahead, not least the continued growth of small-scale renewable power plants that must be incorporated into the grid, but grid edge technologies are developing rapidly to monitor, balance and maintain a decentralised power network. The data and insight grid edge technologies provide are helping municipalities, distribution system operators better understand energy flows and how to optimise them. The most important challenge, however, is bringing consumers into the new paradigm.