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Keeping the Lights On Around the World

The rise of numerous small power stations, typically using wind or sun, means power networks are no longer just distributing power from central generators, they are receiving power from a variety of broadly distributed resources. The additional sources of power have made the IT management process an increasingly complex balancing act for power operators.

This new dynamic is forcing changes to the central control architecture in the electricity grid. In Germany, annual spending on technology to create more distributed intelligence within the electric grid will top US$ 42 billion by 2017. Nowhere is the technological challenge of balancing supply and demand in the network better illustrated than in Mannheim, Germany.

Distributed Supply

The Model City of Mannheim (MOMA) project is part of the German government’s “energy systems of the future” initiative. Already we are seeing the results, as a sophisticated ICT platform has been deployed for use to manage the local power grid in part to engage consumers directly with the fluctuating availability of renewable power.

The MOMA grid takes power supplied by over 500 producers and distributes it to residents in Mannheim and neighboring Dresden. The grid itself doubles as a broadband communications system for connecting in-home smart devices. Since its beginnings in 2010, one thousand residents have participated in the project. Their appliances have been connected to an “energy Internet” and each household was provided a package of software tools to monitor usage and spending.

“The big challenge for renewables is they are not always available when you need them; sometimes the wind blows, sometimes the sun shines,” says Ingo Schoenberg, chief executive at MOMA. “The MOMA project looked to find ways to balance supply and demand, between highly volatile energy generation and intelligent energy consumption, and to improve the efficiency of both.”

By linking tariffs directly to network capacity, participants have been encouraged to use energy when availability is high and prices are low. For those not wishing to micro-manage power use, MOMA has provided an ‘energy butler’ that switches on appliances only during periods when energy is plentiful and cheap. “What it showed is that people will change their behavior if they are told what the real price of energy is,” says Schoenberg.

As a result, private households have saved around 10% in energy consumption, and 15% on energy bills, and the electricity operator has been able to better manage loads on the network. The MOMA findings have been used to legislate for flexible energy tariffs and a single communications platform, running both the smart grid and smart meters.

Communications Network

Such technology solutions have also afforded electricity providers new ways to tackle power interruptions and improve operational efficiencies. In the U.S., storms and damage by animals often seriously disrupt the electricity supply. A 2004 study by the University of California, Berkeley, put the annual cost of power outages for the U.S. economy at around US$ 80 billion.

The Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga, Tennessee, operates a service territory of around 580 square miles; within which the potential economic impact of electrical blackouts is calculated to be around US$ 100 million per year.

In 2012, funded in part by a US$ 115.5 million stimulus grant allocated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the EPB completed an infrastructure upgrade to achieve a highly automated smart grid, fully equipped with intelligent sensors, switches, and meters. Like MOMA, the EPB grid is linked by the same broadband fiber optic network on which a consumer triple-play proposition is running.

“This is potentially what the future of power grids looks like,” says David Wade, EPB Executive Vice President. “No other utility in the U.S. has the same level of automation — but everything comes back to this ability to communicate. Our grid is connected at every point by our fiber network. That is what is making Chattanooga the perfect place to decide how the future will look.”

Now, if and when a car or truck hits an electricity pole causing an outage, the EPB grid “self heals;” its network of 1,200 smart switches communicate over the fiber network to pinpoint the location of the outage, and to reroute power around the damage. Outages in EPB’s network have been reduced by 50 to 60 percent since 2012; with a cost savings to the local economy of US$ 50 million per year. Operationally, the EPB itself has seen US$ 10.5 million in savings in repairs, asset management, truck roll, and theft, it says.

Leading global ICT provider, Huawei, has designed a number of solutions to combat a broad range of new challenges for delivering electricity, from network infrastructure, to core platforms that deal with local issues as theft of service by end-users.

Huawei says that electricity suppliers in Nigeria, for example, have been vulnerable to consumer theft, which was not helped by the fact that, until now, suppliers have been unable to collect accurate data about power consumption over 80% of customers.

To mitigate this issue, Huawei has prepared to install an automatic metering system, supported by new sensors and controllers connected by a high-speed data network. Covering 400,000 Nigerian, homes, data from customer meters will be uploaded to local operators once every 15 minutes, giving operators a live feed of usage within the network.

“The system will improve revenue and profit for power companies,” says David He, President of Marketing and Solution Sales, Huawei Enterprise. “Instant communication systems and reliable power infrastructure maintenance is vital for efficient production and distribution of electricity. The Huawei solution enables early warning alerts, real-time fault locations, self-healing mechanisms, and effective load management.”

The rising economy of Chinese cities is putting a drain on legacy power networks. Zhuhai Electric Power, serving 8.22 million people, wanted to bring automation to its network but expressed concerns about various traditional fixed and wireless technologies, citing issues of access, reliability, cost, and capacity.

Zhuhai considered the installation of a fiber optic network throughout its service territory, as per the EPB solution, was considered unnecessarily expensive and complex, and opted instead for a trunked version of Huawei’s 4G LTE wireless standard. The result is a combination of fiber-like speeds with the lower-costs of a wireless deployment. And also, like traditional two-way radio systems, the Huawei eLTE solution provides Zhuhai Electric Power with a private radio network for distributed automation communications.

Similarly, Huawei won the contract to overhaul the old and unreliable communication lines that have hampered the reliability of electric power distribution by the Qingdao Power Supply Company in Qingdao, China. Huawei’s highly automated, all-optical “xPON” solution has provided better management and higher reliability for Qingdao’s electricity distribution network. By monitoring data from smart terminals across the network in real-time, malfunctioning circuits are now isolated within seconds and a functioning grid restored automatically. The Qingdao Power Supply Company has reduced the duration of annual outages from 2.6 hours to 1.1 hour per household, and its annual capacity losses have dropped by 33.4 Gigawatts per hour (GW/h).

Worldwide, utilities are under pressure to reduce costs, streamline operations and meet stringent goals for environmental regulation. Technology companies like Huawei are rising to the challenge, delivering large-scale solutions that enable smarter electricity grids delivering greener energy.

By James Blackman

from The BBC