Smarter software for a cleaner Asia

Alstom Grid smart grid expert Patrick Plas shares how software can help countries in Asia speed up their use of renewable energy, meet increasing energy demand without building new power plants, and help grids operate more efficiently.

The use of renewable energy is rapidly increasing worldwide - every year since 2011, more than 100 gigawatts (GW), or the total generation capacity of Brazil, is being added to the world’s energy mix. In 2013, clean energy accounted for 22 percent of global electricity generation, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

While this spells good news for those who advocate the shifting of the global energy system away from fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, it poses a major challenge to electrical grid operators, who must maintain a stable grid even as they bring in more intermittent sources of energy such as wind and solar.

This is where the power of software technology comes in, says Patrick Plas, senior vice president of grid power electronics and automation at French energy solutions giant Alstom Grid.

Software can help the power sector meet many challenges, Plas tells Singapore Business News in a recent interview. Not only can it help keep grids stable even as more renewable sources are introduced, it can also allow operators to run their grids in a more energy- and cost-efficient way.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar produce power only under certain atmospheric conditions, and this intermittency introduces instability into the grid, explains Plas, who joined Alstom Grid in 2012 after a career in the telecommunications sector.

Headquartered in Paris, Alstom Grid is part of energy giant Alstom, which develops power and infrastructure solutions worldwide. Among the top three companies in the electrical transmission sector, Alstom Grid has an annual sales turnover of 3.8 billion euros, and operates in almost 90 sites worldwide.

Among the company’s ideas for smarter, cleaner grids is smart grid software, made up of a network of sensors which monitor electricity flows within the grid, analyse them and execute decisions to optimise the grid’s operations.

This software is required to help manage the complexity of integrating various energy sources into the grid, says Plas. It can also make electrical networks more intelligent by carrying out demand response and support microgrids.

Demand response is a process by which electricity consumers are paid to reduce their consumption temporarily in exchange for payment, while microgrids are mini versions of centralised grids which can operate independently on renewable sources and connect to the main grid if needed.

A demand response program can manage spikes in energy use by getting some users on the grid to temporarily reduce energy consumption, freeing up power for heavier users. This could involve a commercial building raising its air conditioning temperature by one or two degrees Celsius for a short while - a method of meeting electricity demand without additional power generation.

Or, if a microgrid is generating more energy from renewable sources than it is using, excess energy can be stored in batteries for later use, says Plas.

All these processes involve rapid data analysis and quick decisions on where and how electricity should flow, which is what smart grid software does.

Plas adds that software can also analyse data for grid operators and provide a much clearer picture of the grid’s power output in relation to its capacity.

Grid operators have also been “historically very conservative” in how they operate their grids due to a lack of visibility into exactly how close to the network limits the system is, shares Plas.

Let’s have more money for making grids smarter. Let’s go full speed ahead in introducing new software solutions inside grids.

Patrick Plas, senior vice president of grid power electronics and automation, Alstom Grid

He likens it to driving towards a cliff: “If there is fog and you cannot see the edge, you would prefer to stop further away from the cliff,” he explains. But sensors embedded at various points in an electricity grid clear the metaphorical fog, so that “if you know where the limit is, you can push your system harder and use it better.”

These smart grid measures can reduce the cost of running power grids by between 10 and 15 percent, says Plas, adding that this can make electricity more affordable for all.

But “that can only happen if you have the right software and management systems,” he cautions.

In January, Alstom started working with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and Economic Development Board on a pilot project called the MicroGrid Power Mix (MPMM) system. It is being tested at two locations: the NTU campus in the west and Singapore’s southern offshore landfill island, Pulau Semakau. The system will manage and integrate electricity generated from renewable energy, energy storage, and power-to-gas solutions.

On Pulau Semakau, the MPMM will also test the microgrid’s ability to run independently or when connected to the main grid. Eventually, the technology could potentially be used to power small islands and rural communities off the national grid, Alstom said when launching the initiative.

Smart grid software is a tool that also has immense potential to address energy challenges in Asia, says Plas. Energy demand is projected to almost double in the Asia and Pacific region by 2030, and fossil fuels such as coal and oil are expected to dominate the energy mix, says the Asian Development Bank.

Solutions like demand response, integrating more renewables into the mix, and microgrids are another alternative to large coal or nuclear projects, notes Plas. A nuclear plant could take between five and 10 years to set up, for example, but fitting a network with sensors, or setting up a solar project, is much quicker, he adds.

It’s also cheaper - the average up-front cost of software solutions, when compared to the potential cost of building a new power station, is “tiny to the point of negligible, while the value it adds is enormous,” says Plas.

Despite the potential of these technologies, such solutions are not widely adopted in Asia yet because regulation is lagging behind technology, say Plas. For example, flat electricity rates do not encourage consumers to buy into demand response programmes, and it is difficult to integrate large batteries into the grid if it isn’t clear if they qualify as storage, power generators, or something else altogether.

Asia needs to embrace new business models and regulatory frameworks that will create incentives for power utilities and consumers to embrace the smart grid, and a smart, software-driven grid is the direction that countries should be heading in, says Plas.

While acknowledging that hardware infrastructure such as power lines and towers certainly need to be maintained, “let’s have more money for making grids smarter,” he urges. “Let’s go full speed ahead in introducing new software solutions inside grids.”

Edited by Jessica Cheam and Stanley Tang

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