Berlin, June 2021. The electricity grid is a network for the distribution and delivery of electrical energy from producers to customers and largely contributes to the comfortable everyday life we know. In this post, we will focus on the grid from EnergyLabs’ perspective. Topics will be the development of the grid, its growth over the centuries, the status quo, and what the future will demand from the electricity grid. Finally, we look into how ActiveEnergy might be a possible immediate solution to reduce energy wastage caused by the grid.
Why do we have an electricity grid?
Our society heavily relies on energy. A life without electrical devices is almost unimaginable. We use them for communication, work, school, entertainment and, increasingly, for transportation. The most common way to distribute energy is electrical energy. Since the beginning of the electrification of cities in the 1880s, the distribution of electrical power had to be mastered and thus networks of electrical wires were established and extended around power stations.
Nowadays, the electricity grid is a network for the distribution and delivery of electrical energy from producers to customers. Although we often refer to it as “the grid”, it is not that simple. Electrical networks exist in different sizes, power levels and purposes all over the world. They are categorized by functions, locations or voltage levels and are named transmission grids, distribution grids, rural or city networks.
A glimpse into the past
In the early 1880s, two things came together: The technology for generating and transporting electricity improved and, at the same time, the necessity to exchange gas as the common energy carrier for illumination of the streets and houses grew. As a result, electricity started to rise in its importance for public life.
Around half a century after the invention of the first machines for the generation of electrical energy, the first power stations started to appear. London for example launched its first in 1882. It was supplying lamps with electrical power, providing street lighting as well as private homes. The same year, the first power station started its operation in New York.
These early power stations ran with coal and generated a direct current (DC) at a voltage of 110 V, in opposition to the later developed alternating current (AC) technology. But due to the nature of direct current, the losses of energy were high, and the customers’ homes averagely received a voltage of 100 V. Since the losses correlate with the length of a wire, these early DC distribution networks were limited to one mile around a power plant.
With the appearance of AC Transformers, alternating current could be stepped up and down to other voltage levels. Rising the voltage level is a technique that makes long-distance transmission more efficient and is still used today. An important public presentation took place at the Electro-Technical Exhibition of 1891 in Frankfurt. For the Exhibition, the first long-distance three-phase transmission of high power was established over a distance of 175 km. The first alternating current line for public lighting was installed in 1885 in Rome. Many examples followed. The supply of electrical power became a significant factor for a growing industry and rising living standards throughout the 20th century.
The very beginning of the electricity grid was inaugurated when single transmission lines were connected to area-wide regional, national, and international networks. As the sizes and numbers of the networks grew, these networks got synchronized and standardized for reasons of scalability, safety, and redundancy. Nowadays we have several wide area synchronous grids (WASG). To name some examples: the Eastern Interconnection connecting eastern US and eastern Canada, the National Interconnected System (SIN) connecting the area of Brazil or the synchronous grid of Continental Europe. The latter has a total generation capacity of 1,023,721 megawatts (MW) which is equivalent to the energy demand of 1.8 trillion 4-person-households or 10.2 billion cars.
Limitations and challenges – where are we heading?
At today’s demand and future expectations, we will be facing challenges and limits. Today’s demands towards the electricity grid are not as predictable as they were around 50 years ago when the structure of the grid was being formed. Factors like e-mobility and the necessity to be reliant on renewable energy sources 100% make the system more complex. Regulation of the frequency and voltage become increasingly difficult. Also, the energy demands are rising at such levels, that long-distance transport networks are reaching their limits.
This rising number of electronics used for illumination and entertainment in industry, offices and private houses also have an impact on the quality of the grid. Furthermore, the technical grade of a device has a quality impact on the grid. Unfortunately, not all devices meet the same technological standards. As a result, we experience a falling quality of the electricity delivered. A unit to measure the quality of electricity is the power factor. Since the electricity grids are strongly interconnected, these effects are not remaining a local challenge, but rise to a national and continental scale.
The integration of renewable energy sources is still challenging. Renewable energy sources do not deliver continuous power as classic power stations do. Solar power is only available during daylight times and even then, it varies according to the weather. Wind energy is even more reliant on the weather situation. Predictions of available wind power can only be made statistically in relation to seasons. In this context, it is obvious that conventional power stations need to be kept on standby as a backup in case of a shortage of renewable power.
What does this all mean? Wide area synchronous grids need to operate balanced in manners of demand and supply of energy. With rising power consumption and or falling power production, voltage and frequency go down. With rising production and falling consumption, they go up. Electric energy producers have to react to consumption peaks and valleys constantly. But while they try their best, the voltage delivered to the customer varies. To compensate for these effects large scale energy storages could become a solution.
Solutions and roadmap
EnergyLabs’ proposal for a solution is a highly interconnected network of decentralized nodes that can act as both energy sources and drains. This means that optimally every building should not only be connected to the electricity grid but also be supplied with renewable energy sources and energy storage. They should be transmitting their consumption and other information as power factor to the grid or the neighbour buildings. This way, the grid becomes a transparent and intelligent network. It will allow us to know where and how much energy is being consumed. Accordingly, energy sources or energy storages in the direct surrounding of the demand can be activated. Long-distance energy transmission will become of less importance and the whole system will gain in efficiency and reduce the energy waste that we are facing today.
For the time being (transition phase), EnergyLabs offers an immediate solution for our partners. ActiveEnergy reduces energy waste in buildings and ensures savings on the electricity bill. The AE PowerStation optimizes the voltage levels and AE Hub allows us to visualize potential energy savings. Both devices in combination with AE Cloud make the electricity grid more transparent and help us to train our AI to act more efficient and to maximize the savings.