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Efficiency evolution in smart grids

GE's Frank Ackland answers our questions about smart grids

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The role of smart grids in a smart city network.
The role of smart grids in a smart city network.

What is the smart grids landscape like in the Middle East at the moment – are they being adopted swiftly?
Here in the Middle East we are at the heart of the energy challenges facing countries globally - demand for electrical power is expected to reach 112 per cent (of current levels) by 2030.

Urbanisation, industrialisation, lifestyle changes coupled with limited regulation are just some of the issues faced. Over the next 30 years the population in the Middle East is expected to increase by 39 per cent creating an additional 67 per cent of CO2 emissions.

There is a real need to balance economic and social advancements with sustainable living in a cleaner environment, and this is where we can play a major role in helping utilities with smart grid solutions that are designed to make the existing electrical infrastructure more efficient, and allow more consumer engagement while creating high end greener jobs for the region.

For example, smart metering, distribution automation, demand management and microgrid applications in addition to grid-wide visualisation and control that will enable reliable grid interconnectivity are among the top priorities of regional distribution and transmission companies.

What are the current barriers to smart grids in the Middle East?
The tremendous growth in infrastructure will place enormous constraints on the existing grids and although this has slowed in the last couple of years for obvious reasons, the demand for energy is still exceeding the rate of supply.

Averages of six to seven per cent annual energy demand growth are a reality that utilities in the region need to deal with.

Supply-side management, i.e. building more fossil fuelled power plants and more transmission and distribution substations, takes time and even more capital to complete; two things that all utilities and governments across the region are struggling to balance.

Smart grid solutions provide real opportunities to balance this equation from the demand side. This however, requires regulations to be introduced such as those dealing with time-of-use tariffs, CO2 emission levels and consumer empowerment measures and education. Such matters are being seriously discussed and considered in a number of countries today.

What are the main benefits Smart Grids will bring to the Middle East region?
The Middle East needs a smarter grid – one that will enhance the reliability of the expanding grid, increase efficiency of grid operation by reducing technical and nontechnical losses, empower consumers to make informed decisions on energy usage.

They will also increase productivity of the workforce and reduce emissions by allowing higher levels of renewable penetration and electric vehicle adoption.

How will the interconnection grid change the region’s power landscape?
All countries in the Gulf with the exception of one have their grids interconnected. The remaining country will have its grid interconnected very soon.

This interconnection project is a major milestone that has been reached by the regional utilities, opening up opportunities for power trading and for further interconnections with neighboring Arab countries such as Jordan, for a wider grid across the whole peninsula. Further down the road, this will allow for an interconnection with Europe.

Many countries have plans to introduce a variety of energy sources such as nuclear and renewables, which will enable them to to meet their own energy demands and sell on their excess power to any of the interconnected countries.

However, while this interconnection enables countries to trade power among themselves to alleviate shortages, it also presents real challenges to the stability and reliability of the whole network.

What new technology are we likely to see in the near future?
This is an interesting and exciting question. At GE, we are not in the business to simply deploy technologies. We look at issues in a holistic manner in order to provide real, smart solutions to solve our customer’s toughest challenges. GE is a leader in R&D programmes, annually earmarking a significant percentage of its revenue towards product development and innovative solutions.

Today, the challenge is to provide an end-to-end solution that can integrate all applications under one umbrella, providing a complete approach to smart grid deployment.

Do tariffs need addressing before implementation of smart grid systems?
While subsidies present challenges in the form of reining in increasing energy demands and costs incurred to meet them, they are not the only issue impeding the fast implementation of a smarter grid.

Although utilities and regulators see the real benefits that a smarter grid can offer, the business case to justify the investment and the time it takes to return the benefits are sometimes elusive and hard to pinpoint.

This is where GE, with its global footprint and experience can share with utilities real business case tools that have been developed to justify the investment and share with them real examples of deployments that enable them to learn from their counterparts elsewhere in the world be it in the US, Europe, Australia or Canada.

Is there much education required about smart grids?
People need to be made more aware that the smart grid is not a revolution. It is simply an evolution of today’s infrastructure with the addition of intelligent monitoring, control, communication, and self-healing technologies. Smart solutions implemented now will see the following results:
• Better facilitation of the connection and operation of generators
• Improvement in the existing high levels of system reliability, quality and security of supply
• Empowered consumers playing more of a part in optimising the operation of the system and in choice of supply
• Significant reduction in the environmental impact of the whole electricity supply system

There is however the need to explain further to people in simple terms why a smarter grid is important. It is everybody’s responsibility; utilities, regulators, technology providers, academia and the media. For example, we all play a pivotal role in explaining why fewer emissions are as good for us as for the environment. If we shift certain activities from peak times to off-peak times we can save money.

Furthermore, installing smart meters in the home allows for a two-way communication between utilities and consumers. This provides the latter with real, instantaneous data on their energy consumption and corresponding cost which in turn provides utilities with the ability to control certain loads in cases of emergency or shortage of supply; demand side management or demand response in action.

Which areas of the Middle East are likely to be the biggest areas of growth for smart grid systems?
Across this region we are seeing that a smarter grid for the 21st century is not just a vision or a concept, it is a tangible roadmap of enhancements to enable our existing infrastructure to evolve, whether it is addressing the reliability of electricity supply, as in the case of Bahrain, or Saudi Arabia’s focus on increasing its generating capacity to the UAE’s renewable energy efforts and Oman’s planned interconnect with Abu Dhabi.

The smart grid solutions that are available now and in use across the globe offer real opportunities for the GCC.

How will smart grids assist the implementation of renewables in the Middle East?
Renewable energy sources such as those generated from solar and wind power are starting to become viable energy sources that complement fossil fuel-based ones.

In the Middle East, we are starting to see an upswing in solar projects and some wind farms such as the projects in Egypt. Although the scale of these projects is still somewhat hesitant, to make an impact on the generation mix, most utilities have announced their determination to harness the sun’s power to generate cleaner energy.

We can envisage a Middle East future with solar farms that are connected to the grid, and contributing a good portion of the energy supply mix. However, renewable energy is by definition intermittent, and there is a need to optimise the mix and predict the availability of solar power in order to ensure that the grid is always supplied with reliable sources. Smart grid solutions are there to do just that.

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