Smart grids, the energy networks of the future

Just like the web, smart grids are flexible, interactive and resilient. The ideal solution to ensure that the cities of the future are smart cities

Published on 15 October 2020

the benefits linked to the flexibility of smart grids

The invention of the World Wide Web in 1991 revolutionized the way we communicate, work and interact with the world. Today smart grids are doing the same thing in the energy sector. This is no coincidence: in fact, the internet and smart electricity grids have much in common.

Both technologies are the result of digitalization and derive much of their strength from their flexibility and resilience. In both cases this resilience is based on redundancy – the capacity of one part of the network to replace another in order to ensure that in any situation the information, or energy, reaches its designated recipient.

But the similarities do not end there. Both networks are decentralized and ramified, branching like the capillaries that distribute blood within the body’s organs. The internet is based on millions of small, connected computers, while the flexibility of the smart grid enables users to access energy not only from large power plants but also from individual customers that self-produce through photovoltaic and other types of energy production located on their property.

Both networks, therefore, are interactive. In traditional electricity grids the energy flows in just one direction, from the utility to the consumer. The smart grid, on the other hand, is characterized by bi-directional flows, from the utility to the user and vice versa, just like data on the internet. The flows are governed in both cases by control systems, computers or new technologies that work together to respond rapidly to the changing demands which come from the network.

Their resilience and flexibility make smart electricity grids fundamental for the smart cities of the future. It is estimated that by 2050 around 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, meaning the demand for energy is set to soar. Furthermore, 79% of energy will be derived from renewable sources. Smart grids represent the ideal technology to guarantee cities the greatest use of energy from renewable sources, at a low cost and as efficiently as possible.

By their very nature, sources such as wind power and solar are intermittent and non-programmable because they depend on meteorological conditions. If, for example, there is no wind then the turbines do not produce energy and their contribution to the energy grid will have to be replaced by another source. At the same time, when energy is produced from renewables it must be consumed or stored immediately, otherwise it will go to waste. Through smart grids and demand modifying programs such as demand response, it has become possible to overcome these obstacles either by using energy self-produced by individual users, reducing consumption or by using energy stored in car batteries (though Vehicle to Grid – V2G) or other storage systems.

Smart grids have another benefit: they reduce waste, making energy consumption more efficient and less costly. By constantly monitoring energy use, smart grids ensure, for example, that the power that a client draws on decreases when demand reaches a peak and prices are higher, helping to reduce the customer’s electricity bill. At the same time, the updated data on the state of the grid at any given moment also reduces the operating costs for energy companies and this is reflected in further reductions in the cost of energy for customers.

There is also a feature of smart grids that, in an increasingly interconnected world, is extremely precious: the flow of data in real time. Smart meters, one of the key factors in the modernization of the electricity grid, provide continuous information about customers’ energy use, enabling utilities to offer advanced services such as bespoke invoicing for individual users. The client also has available all the information necessary to use energy in such a way as to keep bills as low as possible.

The availability of data in real time makes it easier for utilities to avoid energy blackouts and other malfunctions and to rapidly restore power should these occur. This is a key factor for the network security, particularly in a moment such as this in which extreme weather events are occurring more frequently as a result of global warming, meaning the risk of damage to the electricity grid and the potential for large-scale blackouts is rising.

For instance, in 2018, Italy’s hottest year on record since 1800, there were numerous extreme weather events that occurred across the whole country. That year, the north east of the country had to deal with Italy’s first monsoon, a real hurricane with winds of around 200 km/h that devastated an entire natural ecosystem causing huge damage. Other extreme weather events such as floods, hurricanes, fires and heat waves are expected to become increasingly frequent in our country and in the rest of Europe. In this context, increasing the resilience of the grid is crucial. A constant, bi-directional flow of data can help to immediately detect interruptions in the supply of energy and to contain the problems before they turn into large-scale blackouts.

Flexibility and resilience are fundamental for reducing the exposure to risk of all of the interconnected systems – energy, communications and transport – that regulate city life. Smart grids, in particular, are crucial for ensuring a future that is increasingly efficient, digitalized and safe.

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