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Climate Change and the Grid

Today’s unusual weather phenomena tell us that the climate is changing. While mitigation is important, experts agree that adaptation is necessary to adjust to the various effects of the planet’s evolution. That includes adapting power grids.

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Severe, atypical weather events are on the increase. Flooding, hurricanes, heat waves and extreme cold spells are becoming more frequent. According to the World Bank, global mean warming is 0.8 °C above pre-industrial levels, oceans are acidifying, sea levels are rising at 3.2 cm per decade and an exceptional number of extreme heat waves occurred in the last 10 years. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration adds: “We have entered uncharted climate territory. We must accelerate the pace of adaptation to achieve a more sustainable planet.”

Dr Lawrence Jones, who leads Alstom Grid’s Utility Innovations & Infrastructure Resilience activities in North America, explains the potential impacts of a changing global climate on the power grid infrastructure: “The grid as we know it today was not designed for big temperature swings. So the electric network is affected by increasingly extreme temperatures that may degrade the equipment’s thermal and physical properties and reduce its lifespan. As the Earth heats up, the resistivity of the soil can change and some underground devices could malfunction, leading to problems in the grid’s protection systems. Equally, an excess of moisture in some regions could have a serious impact on the dielectric properties of underground equipment.

“The increase in severe weather events will affect major portions of the electricity networks in different ways. For example, we are already beginning to see an impact on load patterns. Peak loads might change or multiple peaks could occur within a day, resulting in erratic utilisation of energy resources. We saw the occurrences of multiple peaks in parts of the US during the polar vortex earlier this year.”

The solution? A smarter and resilient grid

A smarter, resilient grid can play a major role in adapting to climate change. It can do so in two fundamental ways – the physical approach and the cyber approach. The physical side involves the introduction of new technologies and materials into the grid infrastructure. “For example, the application of nanotechnology can create new materials through the manipulation of their atomic structure with better physical properties, making them more robust and more efficient,” notes Dr Jones, who also serves on Alstom Grid’s global business development team for smart grid and smart cities consulting. “And equipment made with graphene, a revolutionary and extremely hard material, can make it less vulnerable to extreme weather conditions. In this way, material science can make a significant contribution to grid resilience. So, too, can superconductors, which can not only push more electrons down the wires, but can be used to design better power electronics for HVDC. The grid’s adaptation to climate change may also be enhanced by wireless sensor networks, enabling the real-time collection of data in the grid as well as its surroundings.”

© Getty/ThinkStock/Stocktrek ImagesIt’s the information that counts

The second key element in a smarter grid is the leveraging of the huge volumes of data collected – the cyber approach. “We’re talking here about exabytes* of data,” says Dr Jones. “The largest producers and consumers of power grid data are the hundreds of millions of sensors and controls embedded in smart devices installed in buildings, substations, generators, transformers and other equipment in the transmission and distribution networks.”
“Then there are the expanding data from the increasing amount of variable renewable generation resources, demand response programmes, and distributed energy resources such as electric cars and energy storage. Grid operators today and more so in the future will have more access to external data sources such as weather agencies, etc. Extracting actionable information from this avalanche of data will help to identify and predict physical phenomena.”

*one exabyte = 1 million terabytes, or 1018 bytes.

From reactive to predictive operation

This interdependence of the physical and cyber domains is undoubtedly one of the industry’s salient challenges. But this coupling could also present opportunities for different ways to operate the grid when faced with severe weather events. “Instead of the conventional reactive mode of operation, we are at the beginning of the new age of applying more predictive techniques. Operators will have to keep the lights on while coping with the uncertainty due to climate change.”
Dr Jones gives examples. “In the case of the tornado that struck Oklahoma in May 2013, it is reported to have rapidly intensified to an EF-5 level tornado in less than half an hour. Grid operators need to be able to simulate such climate-related anomalies and run ‘what-if’ scenarios to better anticipate how the grid reacts and what actions to take. Similarly, in wind farms across Denmark, the wind speed can go from 0 to maximum in 10 minutes. With integrated forecasting technology and ultra-fast computation, the control centre can calculate what will happen in the next five minutes. This capability enables a predictive mode of grid operation – and is indeed a requisite for what has become known as a self-healing grid – that anticipates events and responds to them to mitigate their negative impact on the network. This can help to make the system more resilient.”

Grid operators need to be able to simulate such climate-related anomalies.

In distribution systems, Volt VAr Optimisation (VVO) optimises power flow using real-time information and online system modelling. “Probably one of the most valuable applications of predictive tools is in asset management. We are now entering what I call the age of ‘hybridity’. For at least the next 30 years, power grids, especially in OECD countries, will consist of both old and new devices and equipment. While utilities will have to replace old assets, there are many assets with more than a decade left in their operational lifespan. Smart condition monitoring devices can be integrated into the grid and asset control rooms for analysis and improved grid operation. Interoperability of the old and new devices is a priority.” Dr Jones is also one of Alstom’s experts on the subject of interoperability across the grid and between different infrastructure systems. He is currently serving as a member of the Smart Grid Advisory Committee at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of the US Department of Commerce.

An on-going investment in IT solutions

All this will require a major investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) solutions. “A particular emphasis will be on advanced grid and asset analytics as well as decision-support systems to harness all the data. The new emerging operational paradigm will require the creation of information flows that allow operators to take appropriate action in real time – or perhaps rather ahead of time. Some applications already exist, but the effort will continue for five to 10 years to come.” To corroborate Dr Jones’ prediction, Navigant Research, a market research and consulting company with special expertise in the energy sector, forecasts that worldwide spending by utilities for smart grid IT systems will more than double in the next 10 years.

As the climate changes, the electricity grid will adapt and become more resilient.
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