Improving grid response to renewable energy

Latest Trends & Technology

~ The importance of rapid communication for managing the energy grid ~

Energy grids are under more demand than ever. As countries transition to renewable sources of power, these technologies bring their own challenges to the task of powering the nation. With many countries stepping up their commitment to green energy, it’s vital that the energy grid is properly equipped to handle the changes. Here, Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff UK, explores the importance of increasing the energy grid response as we work to power the revolution in energy.

Renewable energy sources have a habit of creating power fluctuations in the energy grid that they’re feeding into. This is because their power sources aren’t consistent — it’s never constantly windy or sunny, for example. As a result, renewable energy technologies vary regularly in how much energy they produce and send to the energy grid.

This can have many detrimental effects on the grid. Global demand for energy has been predicted to continue to increase over the next few decades, both in industrialised countries and in developing ones. For grid operators who need to ensure that the supply is meeting demand from energy consumers, this presents a challenge.

Traditionally, when dealing with this problem gas generation and hydroelectric systems are used to avoid power outages. These sources, however, are resource-intensive and slow to power up, making them inefficient at responding to the ever-changing landscape of how people use energy.

If we are to decarbonise the grid, and switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources without disruption to consumers, it will be vital to manage any fluctuations in the energy grid. Doing so will mean that energy users get the energy they need, while also protecting equipment and machinery from sudden increases or decreases in the supply.

New energy storage systems offer a solution to this problem. For example, flywheels are often used as short-term spinning reserves, helping to manage the fluctuations in supply and demand for energy. They, along with new storage technology, can be brought in as alternatives to the traditional methods helping to reduce CO2 emissions and moving towards zero carbon electricity. Flywheels can compensate for variances in the power supply down to the second – and this is where effective control systems come into play.

Having an efficient response time requires highly efficient data transmission through a network, to make sure that information is getting where it needs to be as fast as possible. This relies heavily on the fieldbus protocol that communicates the data. To meet the growing need for rapid data transmission, more energy engineers are turning to EtherCAT as the protocol of choice.

EtherCAT gives users a high response speed, which allows for tight control of frequency regulation. Its distributed clocks functionality allows measured values to be synchronised with very high precision of 1 microsecond. Fast communication means that operators can easily check data trends, enabling greater reliability in data analysis.

It’s important to team this with effective power monitoring terminals, as they allow for accurate measurement and reaction to voltage on the grid.  These speeds mean that systems can respond to a frequency drop in the grid with immediate voltage support, averting potential power outages. Flywheel systems can follow signals from their grid operators without any delay.

But balancing fluctuations in the supply and demand of energy isn’t the only reason fast communication should be a priority for energy engineers. Monitoring energy data can help with protecting machines from any issues that might arise from fluctuating power quality.

As well as knowing the health of any systems, consistently balancing any surges and dips in energy can help ensure that machines perform as expected. Insufficient power quality can damage machines, so it’s vital that grid operators have systems in place that can make sure that a constant supply of energy is maintained.

High communication speeds support better health monitoring. Knowing the conditions of systems and generators is essential if maintenance is to be efficient, especially if there is remote equipment that could potentially need to be fixed in-person. For offshore windfarms, where the turbines are exposed to harsh weather conditions as well as a generally corrosive environment, knowing the condition of the machinery is a vital part of grid management. This information can help make decisions about when maintenance and repair is cost-efficient, as well as helping find potential problems before they escalate into bigger issues.

With faster industrial communications protocols and the right supporting systems, keeping the energy grid functioning to meet the needs of consumers has never been more achievable. The demand for reliable energy continues to grow and industry must respond. As countries embrace the renewable revolution, ensuring that the energy grid can cope will have to be a priority. To unlock the potential of renewable energy, engineers need to reap the benefits of high speed fieldbus technology.