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Standardised smart grids are the need of the future: GE's Vera Silva

A decarbonised world will need a new kind of two-way electricity distribution grid that can handle renewable sources as well as 'prosumers' who will feed power back to the network, the CTO of GE Grid Solutions says

Harichandan Arakali
Published: May 25, 2022 12:14:01 PM IST
Updated: May 25, 2022 12:40:16 PM IST

Standardised smart grids are the need of the future: GE's Vera SilvaVera Silva, CTO of GE Grid Solutions

Q. What are some of the biggest problems with today’s existing power grids around the world—the non-smart grids?

Most power grids of today were started 100 years ago. They were designed for a certain way of producing and consuming electricity, mostly with generation connected to high voltage. Now, things are swiftly evolving with climate change requiring an energy transition and change in society expectations. These original grid systems today require three areas of change. First, in the source of producing energy—now, with renewables resources connected distant from demand centres (for large onshore and offshore wind) alongside with distributed generation connected to distribution grids. The type of machines that we use to generate electricity from renewables are not the traditional synchronous machines and this changes the physics of the grid. Lastly, with the growth of distributed resources, the distributions grid, last mile of the networks that go up to our houses, will need to manage two-way flows requiring a change since these were designed for one-way flows and with limited intelligent devices and controls.

Hence, there is a huge need for investment for monitoring observability orchestration tools on these distribution networks.

The final change is in how people are using electricity. Earlier, we had a wealth of data on consumer behaviour with a reasonably predictable way of managing. Now, they are becoming more active—they have their own PV (photovoltaic) panels, they have maybe electric vehicles, etc—so, we call them prosumers. They are willing to contribute to help the grid, but at the transition space, it creates less predictability on the behaviour. So, these are some of the problems or opportunities that are driving the need for evolving smart grids.

Q. What are the top characteristics of a smart grid? What are the most important benefits of smart grids?
The smart grid has received much attention in the industry during the past few years. It combines electric utility equipment with sensors, data communications, controls, and software orchestration—an intelligent system that leverages real-time information and analytics—increasing reliability, integrating renewable energy resources, and aiding better business decisions. The smart grid isn’t completely new; in fact, some aspects have been around for more than 30 years, mostly as individual solutions to specific problems such as having remote control of generating plants. Today’s modernisation of the electric utility infrastructure integrates communications with generators, substations, and meters, with the goals of improving the reliability of the electric system, integrating renewable energy into the power supply mix, and providing information that aids consistent and informed business decisions.

 The smart grid brings a range of benefits in making electricity transmission and distribution more efficient, increasing integration of largescale renewable energy systems, improving integration of customer-owner power generation systems (including renewable energy systems) and more. It also cuts long-term costs—both in reducing total cost of ownership for utilities and helping to ensure electricity affordability.

Standardised smart grids are the need of the future: GE's Vera SilvaA smart grid combines electric utility equipment with sensors, data communications, control and software orchestration

Q. Tell us briefly about noteworthy advances in smart-grid technologies.

Digitisation of the grid, towards becoming a smart grid, is a journey.

It started in the 1960s-70s with a focus on increasing our ability to observe what’s happening in the grid—key to managing all this intermittency of the renewables to react, keep resiliency in events, as well as utilise better infrastructure. The transmission grids were by default, more advanced. So, today, we are getting more observability at distribution, monitoring, communications, district management systems based on software with orchestration in digital substations, and then enabling this to behave much more like conventional plants.

In Europe, we see self-healing grids that see a fault and then reconfigure. So, digital orchestration and automation of the grid are key areas. Alongside, there are advances in grid protection and controls. Further, advancements in smart grid technologies are on distribution and transmission, but more on distribution, especially in countries where the renewables is growing through distributed generation.
Q. Wouldn’t being more connected to the internet make power grids even more vulnerable to cyber attacks? What solutions are emerging that can protect grids against such attacks?
Standardising technology is vital to ensuring cyber security, interoperability, reliability and safety for consumers and utilities as we begin the implementation of a smarter electrical infrastructure. Interoperability is of key significance here. Earlier, we had an industry that was developed in independent ways with strong technical teams and extensive use of proprietary protocols and data models. Now, to adopt new technology at the base, we need to abandon dedicated protocols and look for data models and communication protocols specific for smart grids and standardised across the industry. Interoperability helps immensely on the cyber security piece. The industry is today trying to set standards and protocols on cyber security for smart grids. Cyber security concerns how we patch and how we automatise. So, it started in an area where people didn’t want to share their challenges and vulnerabilities and moved into an area where people understand the need to cooperate. That’s why, the movement on standardisation of protocols for cybersecurity is very important.

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