Research – key to power systems of the future


By Jonathan Spencer Jones

That research is fundamental to the development of power systems is – or at least should be – self-evident – yet it still needs to be stated and actions taken to ensure that the research happens.

The point is well made, and in fact is one of the main conclusions, in a new discussion paper, Smarter and stronger power transmission: Review of feasible technologies for enhanced capacity and flexibility, which was prepared by Carl Öhlén of the Swedish Transmission Research Institute (STRI) and Prof. Kjetil Uhlen of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Electric Power Engineering for the International Smart Grid Action Network (ISGAN).

The basis for the paper is the need to strengthen and smarten transmission and distribution systems to handle both the growing proportion of variable (renewable) energy sources and the changing patterns of demand that new types of load such as electric vehicles (EV) will introduce.

Thanks to the rapid development of power electronics, old applications with switched capacitors and reactors can now be optimized with thyristors and transistors in what is known as FACTS (flexible AC transmission systems) and with HVDC. These can be combined with ICT for real time monitoring, protection and control, while standardization such as IEC 61850 and Common Information Model (CIM) enables vendor independent interoperability.

The paper argues for a holistic system view of the T&D infrastructure, saying that while stakeholders agree that most of the technologies needed to transform the sector are already available, and can be rapidly demonstrated and deployed, the development of these technologies and actions seems to be progressing too slowly. For example, distributed FACTS (D-FACTS) and static synchronous compensators (D-STATCOMs) are available but have yet to be demonstrated and deployed.

The paper concludes that history demonstrates the value of close cooperation between state-owned utilities (which were often vertically integrated with generation, transmission and distribution) and private companies (with their own R&D resources and in-house power system expertise). But new approaches are needed to stimulate early investments in infrastructure with a system view. Policy makers, regulators and governments – and we would also add, as a key stakeholder setting the agenda, utilities – should establish the framework to allow for and finance necessary R&D and long term investments.