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The electricity industry is operating in a changing world where renewable and distributed energy sources are becoming an increasing part of the energy generation mix.

This article first appeared in The African Power & Energy Elites, 2019. You can read the full digital magazine here, or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

This decarbonisation of the grid has been a key driver of network change in recent years.

In 2017, renewables contributed almost 50% of the growth in global power generation and now account for 8.4% of global electricity generation (excluding hydro), with growth rates rising year-on-year. In the UK, for example, renewable generation has increased from 5% to 30% in the last ten years with over 25% already connected to the grid at distribution level.

In Africa, there is a strong push towards renewable energy sources to increase generation capacity and the pace at which clean and affordable energy access is rolled out. The increasing cost-competitiveness of wind and solar power are making these technologies a very attractive option for African countries looking to achieve rapid and cost-effective expansion of electricity access for their growing populations.

Renewables also offer greater flexibility with micro-grids providing rapid local solutions which can be connected to the main grid at a later date. This pace of change is only set to accelerate as governments pursue clean growth strategies, energy markets become decentralised and electric vehicles become increasingly common.

To facilitate this transformation a number of elements need to be in place.

DEVELOPMENT OF INTELLIGENT ENERGY SYSTEMS

Distribution automation systems at a medium voltage level have helped to facilitate the proliferation of renewable energy sources. These systems give operators much more information about what is happening on the network, allowing active network management to balance the system as distributed energy sources increase.

Furthermore, automation systems have delivered improved quality, reliability and reduced fault restoration times. For example, Lucy Electric’s automation work for Kenya Power cut fault identification times from up to two hours down to 30 seconds, and restoration times through remote switching down to minutes.

Alongside this, low voltage monitoring of networks now allow for substation monitoring to capture data at the most remote locations, closest to customer demand. Effective analysis of this data allows for real-time visibility of network performance right down to the ‘last mile’ where much of the renewable generation sources are located.

However, these systems collect vast amounts of data that need careful analysis to turn it into valuable, useful information. Managing this ‘big data’ is not something most utilities are equipped for and it may need to be outsourced to a data analytics service provider with experience in managing and analysing big data. These services provide companies with actionable information both in real-time and based on historical asset data – providing information which facilitates real-time responses, identifies trends and informs decisions around futuremaintenance and investment.

DATA ANALYTICS IS KEY

Managing and interpreting data is essential for a smart energy system with smarter electricity networks. Active network management demands a network-wide approach with joined-up systems communicating at all levels, which requires greater levels of management as systems continue to progress.

Real time data provision will also be essential as digital technologies in our increasingly connected world play a growing role in the shape of the energy system of the future and how customers interact with it.

Lucy Electric is already seeing this through its work with UK electricity networks as more customers want to connect electric vehicles and sell their excess solar energy to the g rid. As more storage becomes available, customers want to maximise the retur ns on domestic energy generation and participate in the markets being created for flexible services.

Grid edge technology can help utilities facilitate this and empower consumers to become prosumers,  with the potential to pool both their renewable generation and adjust demand.

The installation of demand energy response management systems can help manage the changing  relationship and positively affect consumer behaviour. Utilities are introducing constraint management where distributed energy resources (DER) are per mitted to export or import at set times or have a fixed output limit imposed at certain times.

This can be managed through local physical measures such as using R TUs for timed connections or behavioural control mechanisms on the customers’ side such as flexible pricing structures to encourage consumers to connect to energy sources a t low demand times. We expect these approaches to significantly change market dynamics and the relationship between consumer and electricity provider in the future.

ENERGY STORAGE WILL BE VITAL

The final piece in the puzzle is energy storage. Better and more efficient energy storage will be crucial to driving large-scale renewable generation. Effective management of stored energy can smooth and balance the unpredictability of renewable generation, making its widespread use manageable.

Technology is improving all the time and there is increasing support aimed at facilitating this in developing economies. In June 2018, the World Bank launched a first-of-its kind $1 billion funding programme to fast-track deployment of battery storage projects in Africa and other developing economies in a bid to accelerate efforts to transition to cleaner energy sources.

PLANNING FOR A RENEWABLES FUTURE

Network operators are already looking ahead at how greater innovation can support a more efficient grid and facilitate greater use of clean, renewable energy sources. The right information and a whole network approach will drive the dynamic systems that are needed to support more diversified and distributed energy generation sources. This in turn will facilitate new energy markets such as peer-to-peer trading at a local level, enable vehicle-to-grid power flows on a significant scale, and unlock the new era of flexibility that is based on ever-changing factors rather than historic capacity.

The renewables age will be one of flexibility and adaptability facilitated by an interconnected world. Changes implemented by network operators now must take the outside environment into account as well as the internal network management in order to make the most of the opportunities this will present.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Griffiths, CEO, Lucy Electric (UK) Ltd

With a wealth of experience within the electrical distribution and supply industry, John has ensured the growth and success of Lucy Electric product portfolio in countries across the globe.

This article first appeared in The African Power & Energy Elites, 2019. You can read the full digital magazine here, or subscribe here to receive a print copy.