Energy Central Power Perspectives: Flexible Connections and Dynamically Managing Distributed Energy Resources: Exclusive Interview with Joris Soens of Fluvius
image credit: Joris Soens
- Apr 17, 2019 5:15 pm GMT
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Fluvius is the distribution system operator (DSO) in Flanders, Belgium, working to provide – amongst other things - electricity and natural gas to customers across the region. While Fluvius does not buy or sell energy, the DSO is responsible for ensuring the energy reaches customers reliably and affordably, and recently that has meant staying ahead of the curve when it comes to distributed energy resources in addition to traditional baseload power plants.
As distributed energy resources continue to take on a greater role in the Flemish grid and investors continue to seek opportunities to build local renewable energy generation, of which a large share consists of wind turbines, Fluvius has had to figure out how to best manage these new sources of energy in the optimal way. These challenges are so critical that they are the focus of Joris Soens’s presentation at the upcoming the Grid Asset Management 2019 conference, where his talk is titled “Flexible Connections – dynamically managing distributed energy resources to optimize reinforcement costs and reduce network congestion.”
Ahead of giving his presentation, Joris was kind enough to speak to me and share a preview of his topic and discuss this exciting field of work with the readers at Energy Central. If he’s sufficiently caught your attention, be sure to catch his presentation on day 2 of the conference in May.
Matt Chester: Hi Joris, and thanks for taking the time to speak with me. At the Grid Asset Management conference, you will be presenting about flexible connections of wind turbines and how they can be optimally managed as distributed energy resources (DERs). Can you give a bit of a background into this topic and why it’s such an important area of study?
Joris Soens: As background, I work for an electricity distribution company in Flanders, Belgium. In Belgium, as in the rest of Europe, there is a high incentive and political willingness to integrate more and more renewable energy sources, such as wind turbines. We, as a distribution grid company, have to connect wind turbines and other environmentally-friendly energy resources like solar power and cogeneration to the grid. But the landscape in Flanders is quite difficult to work in because it’s so densely populated. It’s very difficult and unpredictable when and where wind turbines will be built. We often have discussions with producers and investors who want to build wind turbines and get permits to do so.
As a result, the requests for connection that we get are very fragmented: typically for two or three wind turbines per project. Building out a large wind farm is virtually impossible in Flanders, with the exception of seaports and along canals or highways. And, of course, area exists for off-shore wind turbines, but these are directly connected to the transmission grid. The challenge with the typical fragmented onshore turbines and connecting them to the grid is that most of the time it’s difficult to judge if it is worth the investment to build out the necessary new transmission infrastructure to connect just a few wind turbines at a time, so instead we have to use the available grid capacity as efficiently as possible.
MC: You’ve noted that the grid operator should deny certain wind turbines to be connected to the grid if there’s a chance of congestion. Can you explain why that is and how that connection that would cause congestion would be harmful to various stakeholders?
JS: If you look at the Flemish landscape, there are houses everywhere and you never really know where the next wind turbine will land. It’s exacerbated by the fact that investors have all already sectioned the land off and gotten exclusive rights to building turbines on different parcels of land, so it makes it very difficult for the government to oversee the process and ensure it runs smoothly and transparently. Permit requests to build wind turbines are all dependent on individual initiatives, so attributing certain areas for wind over others is almost impossible for the government. This is why there’s a rush on sites and grid capacity by the energy producers.
MC: So, what’s the solution? How do you solve the issue in this unique environment?
JS: That’s our challenge. The solution is to connect these wind turbines as much as possible to the existing grid. In many cases, there is enough grid capacity to absorb this wind power as long as the grid is in a “normal” state.
The medium voltage and high voltage grids are redundantly designed. If there is a grid failure somewhere we can close a switch or open a switch to activate a redundant path, so one failure of a grid cable never leads to a long outage for all clients. But in that case, the grid is in a non-normal state, and a wind turbine could cause congestion, which on its turn would activate the circuit breakers and cause longer electricity outages on the grid, which we cannot let happen.
So, if we want to use the existing grids we have to find a solution to control the output power of the turbine so that even as the grid is not in its normal state, such as some part of the grid being down, then even then the grids will not be overloaded. Most of the time there is no problem, but in the situation where we have to use a redundant path then there is a risk.
MC: You focus on smart grid type solutions to this issue with the wind turbines. Is there any reason why this issue and its solutions is specific to wind energy? Can it be applied more broadly to other distributed energy resources?
JS: The same reasoning goes for cogeneration, CHP, and maybe also for solar. The power range with which we’re dealing here is around 1 to 5 megawatts per unit, which is typical for wind turbines. Solar farms of that size are very exceptional in Flanders, due to the lack of space, so solar panels are typically just on household rooftops, making that an entirely different issue. And cogeneration is typically used in greenhouses, as they are the ideal places to generate heat and energy at the same time. The greenhouses are all concentrated in specific regions of Flanders, so it’s easier to invest in the necessary grid for cogeneration in those areas.
With wind turbines, though, it’s quite difficult to know where they will be placed so it’s hard to know how much capacity you should invest for the grid. If you don’t know how many turbines or how much wind power will come, smart solutions will be a great help.
MC: Where and how broadly have you seen your proposed solution implemented in other regions to solve the problem? Are other grid operators looking to replicate your work here?
JS: I think what we’re doing is rather new. We’re doing it on medium voltage, and we have a great collaborative relationship with our TSO. The possibility to curtail wind farms is quite well known for TSOs, but we developed the processes to apply this on the distribution grid in coordination with the TSO, while realizing continuous improvement. In fact, the ability to curtail becomes a standard requirement to keep on connecting new turbines while ensuring safe grid operation. But the actual amount of curtailed energy is very low, due to a good monitoring of our congestion points and smart algorithms to make sure that the available grid capacity is always fully used before actually curtailing. I’m not saying it does not exist in other countries, but it is rather experimental.
MC: That’s exciting, you’re essentially breaking new ground.
JS: Yes, I believe so!
MC: Lastly, outside of your own presentation, what are you most excited about regarding the Grid Asset Management Conference? Are there any topics you’re particularly excited to hear about or presentations you’ll be sure to catch?
JS: Yes, I am specifically interested in everything to do with analytics and data science. For example, everything that goes with predictive maintenance will interest me. We are looking for better insights in the lifecycle of our cables and other assets to make sure that we don’t replace existing equipment and cables too soon. Until recently, that’s been quite a financial hassle. We want to be ready to invest in new cables when we need to, but we are excited to learn about predictive maintenance to have better insights when we’ll plan on doing so.
We’re also excited about the 3D mapping presentations to inspect equipment. We have a lot of overhead assets that need inspection and require a lot of time and manpower to accomplish, so if we could do it automated or with an advanced version of Google street view then that would be quite beneficial.
Interviewer's Note: Joris will be discussing these issues and more during his presentation at Grid Asset Management 2019 Conference, taking place in London from May 14 to 16. As mentioned, this presentation is titled " Flexible Connections – dynamically managing distributed energy resources to optimize reinforcement costs and reduce network congestion.”