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What is a smart grid?

Nantes, a pioneer in France for smart cities powered by smart grids.

The driving force behind the modernization of the electrical network, the smart grid is full of promise. It will mean savings for consumers and energy companies alike. It terms of the environment, it provides a solution for developing renewable energies. Hossam Afifi, a researcher in networks at Télécom SudParis gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the smart grid.

 

What is the purpose of a smart grid?

Hossam Afifi: The idea behind a smart grid is to create savings by using a more intelligent electric network. The final objective is to avoid wasting energy, ensuring that each watt produced is used. We must first understand that today, the network is often run by electro-mechanical equipment that dates back to the 1960s. For the sake of simplicity, we will say it is controlled by engineers who use switches to remotely turn on or off the means of production and supply neighborhoods with energy. With the smart grid, all these tasks will be computerized. This is done in two steps. First, by introducing a measuring capacity using connected sensors and the Internet of Things. The control aspect is then added through machine learning to intelligently run the networks based on the data obtained via sensors, without any human intervention.

 

Can you give us some concrete examples of what the smart grid can do?

HA: One concrete example is the reduction of energy bills for cities, municipal authorities and hence local taxes, and major infrastructures. A more noticeable example is the architectural projects for buildings that feature both offices and housing, which are aimed at evening out the amount of power consumed over the course of the day and limiting excessive peaks in energy consumption during high-demand hours. The smart grid rethinks the way cities are designed. For example, business areas are not at all advantageous for energy suppliers. They require a lot of energy over short periods of time, especially between 5pm and 7pm. This requires generators to be used to ensure the same quality of service during these peak hours. And having to turn them on and off represents costs. The ideal solution would be to even out the use of energy, making it easier to optimize the service provided.  This is how the smart grid dovetails with smart city issues.

 

The smart grid is also presented as a solution to environmental problems. How are the two related?

HA: There is something very important we must understand: energy is difficult to store. This is one of the limits we face in the deployment of renewable energies, since solar, wind and marine energy sometimes produce electricity at times when we don’t need it. However, a network that can intelligently manage the energy production and distribution is beneficial for renewable energies. For example, electric car batteries can be used to store the energy produced by renewable sources. During peaks in consumption, users can choose to disconnect from the conventional network and use the energy stored by their car in the garage and receive financial compensation from their supplier. This is only possible with an intelligent network that can adapt the offer in real time based on large amounts of data on production and consumption.

 

How important is data in the deployment of smart grids?

HA: It is one of the most important aspects, of course. All of the network’s intelligence relies on data; it is what feeds the machine learning algorithms. This aspect alone requires support provided by research projects. We have submitted one proposal to the Saclay federation of municipalities, for example. We propose to establish data banks to collect data on production and consumption in that area. Open data is an important aspect of smart grid development.

 

What are the barriers to smart grid deployment?

HA: One of the biggest barriers is that of standardization. The smart grid concept came from the United States, where the objective is entirely different. The main concern there is to interconnect state networks, which up until now were independent, in order to prevent black-outs. In Europe, we drew on this concept to complement the deployment of renewable energies and energy savings. However, we also need to interconnect with other European states. And unlike the United States, we do not have the same network standards as our German and Italian neighbors. This means we have a lot of work to do at a European level to define common data formats and protocols. We are contributing to this work through our SEAS project led by EDF.

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