An interview with Luciano Martini (RSE, Milan), coordinator of the EERA Joint Program on Smart Grids, in which he speaks about Europe’s grid network of the future, building partnerships and pooling resources, and the role of the Strategic Energy Technologies Information System (SETIS).
Can you explain what part smart electricity grids play in the future scenario for renewable energy in Europe?
Our smart grids initiative is a joint project within the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA). This is a coordinated action for research in the energy field, bringing together distinguished research labs across Europe. It is still very new, so it was challenging to get people together to agree a common research agenda for smart electricity grids. In fact, part of the first year was spent incorporating the various participants – and we are still doing this, because another 15 organizations have asked to join the program.
Smart electricity grids are currently a very hot topic. Our main idea was to collate most of the expertise available in Europe at different research centers and to figure out the most important activities to advance on in the field. In practice, this means making the actual grid system smarter and more flexible, in order to allow the integration of renewable energy and the many other features that will be needed in the future, to have a low carbon society.
But it’s easy to collaborate with people who are on the same level. I work for a research center that is now 100% public. So we can really work together focusing primarily on R&D results without devoting too many resources to intellectual property rights issues or being worried by having all the results published. Each partner institution has some particular expertise, but the added value is to share this information with the other partners. I contribute one piece of information and get 13 other pieces back from the other partners. This provides synergy and gives a much better end result.
How will smart electricity grids help meet the European Strategic Energy Technology Plan (SET-Plan) targets?
The electricity grid is really the enabler of all the other techniques. In Europe we want to use low carbon generation from renewable sources – wind, solar, hydro, or whatever – but the grid was developed many decades ago, and is not really able to accommodate a huge amount of renewables. We need to make the grid smarter, stronger and more reliable. A smart electricity grid will allow us to have energy generated in northern Europe transmitted and distributed to a final user who might be in the south. But you need a very strong grid for this, with some capabilities that are not implemented at present.
As we need to improve the old infrastructure, why not redesign it, using new technologies that were not available 10 or 20 years ago? The main idea is to have a modern grid that allows the distribution system operator (DSO) or transmission system operator (TSO) to visualize energy consumption, the energy generated and other grid parameters – like voltage, current, frequency – at the same time and in real time. So, we need high permeability of the grid to ICT to allow visualization of all the information you need to keep the grid stable, and to keep it flexible. If you have a high level of generation from renewables, you want to be able to store this energy in some way. On the other hand, if you have a lack of generation, you want to be able to disconnect some load very quickly to avoid any major problems, such as a black-out of an area.
What areas are up to speed now, and where is more effort needed?
We already have a detailed program for the next 3-4 years. But of course we started just a year ago, with the resources that were available at that time. We started with four sub-programs that, I believe, cover some of the most important priorities for making the smart electricity grid vision a reality. But there are other issues, and we are now working to launch other sub-programs while gathering further resources from the new participants asking to join our program.
The issues we need to advance quickly are storage and interoperability. If you are generating energy from renewables but don’t need this energy immediately, you have to have an efficient means of storage that allows you to use the energy when it is needed, maybe hours or days afterwards. As soon as we have found an efficient form of storage, we will have solved some of the very important issues behind grid management.
The other big issue is interoperability. No single company will ever make all the devices needed in the grid. There will be several industrial players making these devices and electrical components. But the devices must be able to communicate and exchange information with each other. That means we need suitable standards and protocols, which we call interoperability.
Of course the grid has already been used for many decades. We are now considering some new energy management possibilities. We have to validate these proposed tools and procedures, at first on a small scale, for example using our own testing facilities. We can then propose new solutions. There is the European Electricity Grid Initiative (EEGI), for example, that will be very much interested in the results of our work.
Are there areas where you need more resources?
We have already started collating the available information, and have funding from members of the joint project. But, in the future, this funding could decrease and we may need to attract funding from the European Commission (EC) and FP8. We will need funding to bind the present participants together for the foreseen long term research. I don’t see this being a problem for the next one or two years, but I do see it becoming an issue in the future, when some member states may decide to put money into other areas, leaving participants in those countries unable to continue to participate.
How is Europe placed in terms of smart electricity grids?
Currently, European knowledge and expertise on smart electricity grids is widely recognized. Meanwhile there are very important activities ongoing in the U.S.A., Japan, Korea and even in China.
I’ve been working in research for over 25 years and have developed working connections abroad. My partners and other research centers also have their connections. So we have succeeded, very recently, in developing strong connections with smart grid researchers in the U.S. working at several national labs under the Department of Energy (DOE). Just yesterday we had a teleconference with six American colleagues. And we are organizing a workshop with the DOE in Colorado next May. That’s when we will be able to share our first results and discover where the similarities and complementarities are. We wanted to increase our knowledge while seeing how they may have found different solutions to problems we also have. We’ll probably make the same kinds of connection with Korea and Japan in the future.
For example, any activities related to cyber security and data sharing are very advanced in the U.S. We need to visualize data on the grid, on energy consumption by the end-user and so on. But it is important that these data are kept confidential, and not allowed to fall into the hands of unauthorized people. The data might only be available to utilities, for example, and also perhaps only as agglomerated data, rather than specific data on individual houses, etc.
How is Europe doing with the SET-Plan?
The European Commission is very willing to harmonize all the different initiatives, to increase synergy and get better results. We have also been in contact with the EEGI where the DSOs and TSOs are outstanding actors. These people are now aware of our research program and know that some of the R&D activities they will be needing will be available from our activity in one or two years’ time. We are exchanging information about our program, and they are telling us what their main priorities are. Since we have limited resources we can make sure some of our initial priorities match theirs.
We’ve had five or six meetings in Brussels with EC officers, three meetings with the EEGI and others with the KIC (knowledge and innovation community) InnoEnergy representatives on smart electricity grids. It is better to harmonize our ongoing activities with the other European industrial initiatives towards the SET-Plan goals. We don’t want to waste money through duplication or overlapping.
When will you start seeing the first tangible results?
We decided we didn’t want to have a Joint Program and a new initiative without tangible results in a very short time. We decided to have as deliverables some reports summarizing the results of the first topics. These results will be in two different forms. We will have a summary we can post on our website, for example on a single topic. We will also provide the EC and EEGI with a 100-page, more detailed report. One of the first 100-page reports will summarize information on what is already available, such as electrical storage systems, different testing technologies and integration to the grid. This will be very useful to European players wanting to modernize the grid, by introducing some kind of storage systems for example.
Another report will summarize the network simulation tools available today, enabling us to evaluate the gaps that exist and see which tools are more advanced in some topics than others. Still another report will summarize smart electricity grid interoperability in the U.S. and Europe, enabling us to see differences and similarities and whether there is an efficient way to transfer some of the results that have been implemented already.
The first five deliverable reports will be available at the end of April 2011, and the first results of the joint program will also be summarized at a congress – the first EERA congress – in Brussels in April.
I am a practical person and have links with utility and industrial partners. We want to advance in the technology but not just for fun. We also want to see that it will be implemented in the grid for real evaluation in the next few years. We don’t just want to come up with some smart ideas, but also confirm these in practice.
How do you see the role of SETIS?
SETIS is very valuable, but we should each make the effort to make SETIS even more informative and more useful, so that you want to check the website every few days. If everybody plays their part, SETIS will be very important for all activities across Europe.
This interview was conducted by SETIS (http://setis.ec.europa.eu) and is re-published here with permission.