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Future cities: the rise and rise of smart grids

Smart grids are here to stay, with the global smart grid market expected to surpass US$400 billion worldwide by 2020. Here's why.

Faced with a burgeoning urban population and the need to achieve resource efficiency, city planners are increasingly seeking solutions to green their infrastructural systems and smart grids are poised to play a key role in this transformation.

A recent report by GTM Research estimates that the global smart grid market is expected to surpass US$400 billion worldwide by 2020, with an average compound annual growth rate of over eight per cent.

To put it simply, “smart grid” is a clean, modernized and efficient electrical grid.

The European Union Commission Task Force defines it more formally as an electricity network that can cost-efficiently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it in a way that ensures an efficient and sustainable power system with low losses and high levels of quality, and security of supply and safety.

The various applications within the sector include smart street lighting, microgrids and Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) which are computer-based systems that controls and monitors the building’s mechanical and electrical equipment such as ventilation, lighting, power systems, fire systems, and security systems.

In recent months, smart street lighting projects have been announced by French public lighting firm Citelum and American smart grid solutions provider Silver Springs Network for the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, and by a consortium known as the Street Light Working Group for San Diego county.

Cities such as New Jersey and New York in the United States are also looking to build microgrids to support their mass transit system and improve their resilience in the face of increased uncertainty from natural disasters.

To ensure the delivery of safe, reliable and affordable energy to consumers, utilities will need to make significant investments in grid infrastructure and technology, in order to accommodate new sources of supply and demand, such as electric vehicles, distributed solar power, microgrids and energy storage

Ann Burns, managing director and utilities industry lead for Asia Pacific, Accenture

Separately, property investment firm Jones Lang LaSalle has forecasted that smart building investment will increase threefold from US$5.5 billion in 2012 to US$18 billion by 2017.  

Smart grids an inevitability 

In a survey released in October, titled “Digitally Enabled Grid”, consultancy firm Accenture spoke to 54 executives from global utilities in 13 countries, and looked at challenges and opportunities in optimized smart grid deployment, as well as strategic investments options that can be adopted. 

Findings showed that almost all utilities - 98 per cent - believe that a natural progression of continued electricity network upgrading would point towards a smart grid.  

Managing Director and Utilities Industry Lead for Asia Pacific at Accenture, Ann Burns says, “To ensure the delivery of safe, reliable and affordable energy to consumers, utilities will need to make significant investments in grid infrastructure and technology, in order to accommodate new sources of supply and demand, such as electric vehicles, distributed solar power, microgrids and energy storage.” 

One country leading the way when it comes to smart grid investment per capita, as well as research and development, is Denmark.

In April this year, the Danish government launched a smart grid strategy that includes the use of smart meters, real-time monitoring of energy use, variable tariffs and the use of data hubs across Denmark.

They hope that this will allow for greater flexibility such that demand and supply for energy can be matched and drive energy efficiency. So far, 1.6 million homes and 50,000 businesses have already installed smart meters. It is expected that all consumers will do so by 2020.

Denmark is home to one of the most energy efficient district heating systems in the world. This network, which distributes cost effective and efficient heat from a central source to 98 per cent of Copenhagen’s city centre and 15 districts in suburban areas, is also the largest worldwide.

In 2010, it introduced a district cooling plant to deliver chilled water via insulated pipes to cool central Copenhagen’s buildings in place of large air conditioning systems, using naturally cold seawater from the harbour.

It was also the first country to roll out an initiative that allowed electric vehicle owners to sell power stored in their battery back to the grid.

Notably, Denmark has already declared plans to be fossil fuel free by 2050, and will run solely on renewable energy.   

Singapore: a smart city? 

In Asia, Singapore is making headway in developing its own smart grid infrastructure, although it faces its own unique set of challenges.

Power giant ABB’s region division manager for the Power Systems division, Johan De Villiers notes: “Every city is on an evolution path towards a smart grid city and needs to develop the aspects important to it, and Singapore has its own set of specific needs and requirements.”

For example, there are no issues with grid stability, so some aspects of smart grids are not relevant at this time. “There is also limited opportunity for large scale renewables, so we don’t have the same set of demands on the grid which you might expect elsewhere,“ he tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

He adds that there is a great opportunity across Southeast Asia for grid interconnections to optimally benefit from clean and cheap energy sources across the region.

“The technology is there, but the decision making is complex,” he says.  

Locally, Singapore’s Energy Market Authority (EMA) has been taking a measured approach towards smart grid technology through its trials, which include the Intelligent Energy System (IES) Pilot, Electric Vehicle (EV) Test-Bed and more recently, the Pulau Ubin Micro-grid Test-Bed.

The IES Pilot evaluates a variety of smart grid technologies, including smart metering and its communications infrastructure, and electricity and energy management systems, while the EV Test-Bed looks at the feasibility of EVs on Singapore roads by taking into account consumer behaviour, and performance of vehicles and charging technologies.

The Pulau Ubin Micro-grid Test-Bed is a project that reviews power reliability within a micro-grid set-up on Singapore’s eastern island, which uses a mix of renewable energy sources from solar panels and biodiesel generators.

On the latter, an EMA spokesperson told Eco-Business: “About 30 residents now enjoy cheaper, cleaner and more reliable electricity supply as part of the Pulau Ubin micro-grid launched on 10 October 2013. So far, we have received positive feedback from the participating residents and businesses.”

EMA added that it has completed the IES pilot and is analysing the data collected. This is due for completion in the first half of next year.

Other positive signs of smart grid innovation include the recent announcement by Singapore’s Energy Innovation Programme Office (EIPO) that it is awarding $10 million worth of research grants to six research projects focused on smart grid technologies, which look at reliability and resilience, energy analytics, and control systems, among others.

“Singapore is taking significant steps in its research and test-bedding the appropriate technology. Ultimately, it’s not a race, it’s having the most appropriate approach for the appropriate time, and Singapore has its priorities in the right place,” says De Villiers.

It should not be about how fast we are to implement fast-charging technology, or even an electric vehicle charging network, but on the effectiveness of steps taken to contribute to CO2 reduction as well as how feasible it is for us to have a nationwide infrastructure that is future-proof

Lim Say Leong

He adds: “More important for Singapore is the use of energy, so energy efficiency, which Singapore is already addressing, is a very good step and we expect more initiatives in this direction. Over the next few years, information sharing and communications with customers, connected with data response, which involves communications systems and software, will be increasingly important.”

ABB: driving the EV revolution 

ABB itself recently launched three EV fast-charging stations in Singapore, as part of local test-bedding initiatives encouraged by EMA and the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

These three fast chargers are located in the Motor Image showroom in Toa Payoh, on the campus of the Nanyang Technological University, and at Ayer Rajah Crescent, on the compounds of ABB’s headquarters in Singapore. Their chargers boast the ability of achieving up to 80 per cent capacity charge in as little as 15 minutes.

So far, they have experienced reassuring results.

“ABB has been sharing some data with the relevant authorities as part of the test-bedding that is taking place in Singapore. We are very pleased with the performance of our two Nissan Leaf cars,” says Lim Say Leong, head of marketing communications for the Discrete Automation and Motion division of ABB in Singapore.

ABB is also driving EV adoption in other parts of the world. Earlier this year, it launched a nationwide network of 165 fast-charging stations for electric vehicles in Estonia, a world first.

In recent months, they also announced that they will be rolling out the world’s largest network of 201 EV fast-charging stations in the Netherlands, equipped with solar canopies. Located within 50 km distances along highways, these chargers are compatible with major European, American and Asian electric car makes. ABB anticipates the project will be completed by 2015.  

Comparing Singapore to its Asian counterpart, Hong Kong, Lim notes that while Hong Kong has been quicker in making decisions when installing EV fast charging stations, the focus should be on its overall impact rather than its speed of implementation. 

“Hong Kong committed to a relatively short test-bedding period of about six months. After they drew the conclusions they moved on to install more units of DC fast chargers. In this regard, Singapore may have been a bit slower to recognize the potential and the opportunity to be at the forefront of adopting a new technology, says Lim.

He adds, however, that Singapore is not conducting these tests to compete with Hong Kong. “It should not be about how fast we are to implement fast-charging technology, or even an electric vehicle charging network, but on the effectiveness of steps taken to contribute to CO2 reduction as well as how feasible it is for us to have a nationwide infrastructure that is future-proof,” he says.

Director of clean transportation sharing service Smove in Singapore, Tom Lokenvitz, adds that charging infrastructure should be much simpler and cheaper to support a more widespread adoption of EVs.

“Current solutions and regulation have the tendency to be over-engineered, so charging stations could be much simpler and hence cheaper and more robust. At the end of the day, it should be about numbers, making them available at several locations. Overall, charging stations are part of a larger smart grid,” he says.

As countries around the world work towards smart grid infrastructures that provides energy to its residents in a reliable and cost effective manner, each country has to navigate its own sets of challenges and opportunities to find an ideal solution, one that fundamentally makes business sense.

“The leading utilities will be the ones that embrace the potential offered by new smart grid technologies and adapt their business model to leverage these into new business opportunities for growth,” says Burns.

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