Smart Grids & Smart Microgrids
A smart grid is an electricity network or grid that uses digital technology to intelligently respond and adapt to changes within that network. Smart grids are widely viewed as an opportunity to move energy infrastructure forward and unlock greater reliability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
A smart grid will typically incorporate a number of different common elements. The first of these is advanced metering infrastructure, which gives them their commonly used name: smart meters. These are often accompanied by controls and demand response capabilities that are behind the meter in the case of utility smart grids.
Additionally, smart grids will incorporate distributed generation, typically spread across a large number of small-scale power producers. A range of technologies can be incorporated into a smart grid to provide multiple energy vectors, such as solar and wind providing electricity or heat pumps and biomass providing heat. Intelligent monitoring and controls allow this mix of generation to be used effectively across a number of different sites and end users, dynamically balancing available supply with demand.
Typically, generation technology will be supplemented by storage, usually battery energy storage systems (BESS). The ability to store electricity reliably opens up much greater efficiency across a smart grid, allowing excess generation to be stored and more easily balancing demand across multiple end-users. In the case of smart microgrids, batteries increasingly form the centre of the grid and are typically accompanied by sophisticated energy management software that monitors other aspects of the smart grid and intelligently manages their operation. For larger, utility-scale smart grids, storage continues to occupy a key role, storing generated energy as well as allowing end users to better engage with the smart grid, pushing and pulling electricity as required rather than being passive bill payers.
Lastly, smart grids require sufficient digital communication infrastructure to allow the different elements of the grid to be connected, monitored and controlled in real-time. Smart grids are part of the wider ‘Internet of Things’ technology concept, where increasing amounts of equipment and infrastructure has communication capabilities and is interlinked. This provides utility providers and end users alike far greater insight and access to data, as well as being able to dynamically monitor and control equipment across a grid from a central location.
Smart grids help to reduce energy consumption and costs through intelligent application of data. This includes more accurate preventative maintenance and greater energy efficiency by using data to identify areas of improvement. Integrating various green energy technologies also makes smart grids cleaner, while reduced outages and lower costs through smart monitoring also offers lower energy costs.
What is a microgrid
Microgrid is the term used to describe a local network of power generation and loads. To put it simply, a local area (a campus, site, or neighbourhood) that is able to operate independently from the National Grid, because it can generate its own electricity and supply it around the area. A smart microgrid is one that can intelligently manage all of that by itself, using software algorithms to predict and control the multiple power flows.
Another layer of complexity is added because the microgrid is usually connected to the National Grid as well. Balancing the mix of on-site and purchased power against the required loads is essential to ensure that the carbon reduction and cost targets are met. With organisations facing an ‘energy trilemma’ that requires costs, carbon emissions, and security of supply to be effectively balanced, a microgrid offers the ability to solve each of these challenges.
How is a smart microgrid created?
The specific aims of a smart microgrid will determine what elements they feature and how they are managed. Typically, there will be on-site power generation, from solar, wind, or Combined Heat and Power (CHP), and multiple buildings or equipment requiring specific power loads at certain times. With the ability to run independently from the National Grid, a microgrid can protect a site from power disruptions and reduce costs and carbon emissions from electricity use.
Whatever makes up the network of generation and loads, a control system is required to manage the microgrid. A smart microgrid will have a control system capable of automatically monitoring, predicting, and controlling the power flows, deciding when best to generate, store, and use the energy available.
Battery energy storage is an integral part of smart microgrids. These allow energy to be stored for use when most beneficial. Energy generated on site can be fully used or sold back to the grid if not needed at a peak price. For organisations that have invested in CHP, battery energy storage allows the CHP to remain operational without power supply from the grid, providing enough power to keep the site running independently and uninterrupted.
Which sectors benefit most from smart microgrids?
The flexibility offered by microgrids makes them a valuable option to a wide range of organisations, regardless of sector. Even those with relatively low demand and complexity could improve power resilience, reduce energy costs, and enhance efficiency by implementing a microgrid solution.
However, microgrids are most effective on large sites with complex energy flows, such as manufacturers, defence organisations, universities and healthcare providers with large campuses or estates. For organisations that require power resilience as well as reduced carbon emissions and the ability to navigate grid constraints, a microgrid can offer a comprehensive and effective solution.