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Five key trends in the power industry

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Catherine Bischofberger's picture
Technical Communications Officer IEC - International Electrotechnical Commission

Catherine Bischofberger is a writer and technical communications officer at the IEC, the International Standards and Conformity Assessment body for all fields of electrotechnology.Previously she...

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  • Jan 31, 2020

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The power industry is evolving because it must meet a growing demand for electricity, as the world population continues to increase and developing countries industrialise. One of the key challenges is to satisfy this growing demand while reducing CO2 emissions in order to try and reach the targets established by the Paris Agreement on climate change. Five major trends are part and parcel of this evolution and should help utility managers, engineers and manufacturers address the potentially contradictory requirements for cleaner energy on the one hand and augmenting energy consumption on the other.

  • The renewal of legacy infrastructure

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Much of the electrical generation, transmission and distribution equipment installed around the world is part of an ageing infrastructure. These legacy systems are gradually being modernised to avoid blackouts or brownouts and to continue to meet peak demand. The aim is to render the electricity transmission and distribution network more resilient as well as increasingly disaster-proof as climate change is expected to accelerate extreme weather episodes resulting in flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes. Systems integrating microgrids that can supply homes and businesses independently when the main electricity grid fails are becoming more widespread. One of the technology challenges is to integrate modern IT and software-related devices with transmission and distribution assets which have much longer lifespans. Renewing the infrastructure can also mean opting for solutions which are more energy efficient. (superconducting cables, high efficiency transformers, more efficient overhead conductors, high voltage direct current, etc.) While costlier in the short term, they are better for our planet in the long term. Read more about the use of microgrids in disaster preparedness and recovery in and about energy efficiency in transmission and distribution in

  • The introduction of automation and smart grid technology

Smart grid technology is gradually being rolled out in electricity networks around the world. Key technologies behind a smart grid are sensors that measure the relevant parameters such as temperatures, voltage and current; communications that allow a two way dialogue with a device; control systems that enable equipment to be reconfigured remotely; and user-interface and decision support systems that provide an overview of asset status and perform advanced analytics on data to provide information. Smart grids offer several advantages over conventional power grids:

  • They can easily accommodate the provision of intermittently supplied and unpredictable renewable energy sources
  • They enable peak-shaving (the process of reducing the amount of energy purchased from the utility company during peak demand hours) and energy-saving by managing demand response and providing energy storage
  • Using real time information from embedded sensors, they detect and respond automatically to system problems, a process known as self-healing. These automatized processes require less human intervention, thereby reducing costs.

Read more about smart grids in

  • Cyber security

Power utilities are increasingly targeted by cyber attacks which threaten to seriously disrupt the supply of energy to consumers. The automation and growing use of software-based and IT-related equipment in existing transmission and distribution networks can augment that risk. The problem is that when engineers designed many of today’s power plants, cyber security was not a concern. Operational technology (OT) teams were used to working within closed systems that relied heavily on physical security mechanisms to ensure integrity. With the integration of physical machines with networked sensors and software, the lines between IT and OT are blurring. A variety of threat actors, ranging from lone hackers to organized cyber criminals and nation states, are continually finding ways to exploit vulnerabilities to move from the digital sphere of IT to the physical sphere of OT. More and more power plant managers are thus identifying which of their assets are critical in order to ensure that appropriate resources are allocated to protecting them. This is known as a risk-based approach to cyber security and its aim is to balance the cost of security threat mitigation against the potential impact of a successful cyber attack. Any implemented solutions are monitored over time to ensure their continued effectiveness and to ascertain whether possible attacks could potentially overcome the control solutions. Read more:

  • The use of distributed and renewable energy sources

In a bid to reduce global CO2 levels, renewable sources of energy are becoming a feature of modern electricity supply systems. Several of these sources are intermittent and, as such, need to be managed in a way that does not disturb the continuity of electricity supply in the grid. Smart grid technology (smart switches, automated substations, smart meters, etc.) is a way of managing these intermittent sources of energy. Another way, which can be related to smart grid technology, is the increased reliance on energy storage.

In remote, rural and developing areas, off-grid renewable systems are increasingly used to supply electricity. A conventional power grid comprises a centralized power generation plant, which supplies electricity in one direction from the power station to the end-user. This model is now increasingly complemented by small distributed energy resources (DER) which are situated close to the end-user. Some DERs combine renewable energy installations such as rooftop solar modules, micro wind turbines or small hydro with a battery or a generator to form a microgrid or a mini grid. Read more in:

  • The increasing reliance on electrical energy storage

As intermittent sources of energy become widespread, the requirement for energy storage increases. One way of ensuring continuous and sufficient access to electricity is to store energy when it is in surplus, for example when there is a lot of wind, sun or water available and feed it into the grid when there is an extra need for electricity. Electrical energy storage systems (EES) can be categorised into mechanical (pumped hydro), electrochemical (comprising secondary and flow batteries), chemical (including fuel cells), electrical and thermal types. Utility-scale storage capabilities are still mainly reliant on pumped hydro but batteries are increasingly used as their energy density increases and their cost comes down. Read more about EES in:

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 31, 2020

Energy storage is indeed one of the hottest trends in the years to come, and if the discussion on Energy Central is to be believed potentially one of the hottest debates, mainly around the viability of energy storage to be able to scale up (both economically and technologically) to where it would need to be. What gives you hope that the storage sector will grow in the way it needs to in order to be an optimal asset to the grid?

Catherine Bischofberger's picture
Catherine Bischofberger on Feb 4, 2020

That is a valid point as batteries have low storage capacity. But there are alternatives: quite a few policy makers - especially in Europe and Japan - are looking at hydrogen as an alternative. Pumped hydro also remains an important option in areas where it can be used. At the IEC, we can only plan for these alternatives with standards. IEC Technical Committee just published IEC 62282-8-201, which concerns energy storage systems using fuel cell modules in reverse modes. It establishes performance indicators and test procedures of power-to-power energy storage systems using hydrogen. These systems typically employ a set of electrolyser and fuel cell or a reversible cell for devices of electric charge and discharge.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 31, 2020

Catherine, a simple question: what will be charging these batteries if solar/wind farms are powering the grid during the day?

You write:

"One way of ensuring continuous and sufficient access to electricity is to store energy when it is in surplus, for example when there is a lot of wind, sun or water available and feed it into the grid when there is an extra need for electricity."

The "way of ensuring continuous and sufficient access to electricity" you propose is innocent enough, but wholly ignorant of the massive amount of both energy and storage such a scenario would require. The truth is that the amount of surplus wind and solar energy is currently insignificant, as is available storage in which to store it. And there is no "extra" need for electricity - there is a constant need for electricity. All day long, all night long.

Before we make any national commitment to renewables + storage, we would need to power one medium-sized city with it. What worries me is that, as most competent engineers believe, it's impossible to power modern society on 100% renewable energy. By the time that's accepted by well-meaning-but-physics-challenged activists and politicians, hundreds of $billions will already be invested in worthless batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines. By that time, it will be too late to turn back.

Matt's concerns are valid:

"What gives you hope that the storage sector will grow in the way it needs to in order to be an optimal asset to the grid?"

but might be rephrased: "What gives you hope that storage + renewables will ever be capable of replacing fossil fuel gas and coal?" All the smart money says they won't, that we're wasting precious time and resources. And with climate change, we have one chance to get it right.


Catherine Bischofberger's picture
Catherine Bischofberger on Feb 4, 2020

Quite agree with your point, Bob. Renewable energies are only complementing fossile fuels, etc..but have to be intergrated into the grid and the IEC plans standards for that integration as Richard below points out. IEC Technical Committee 57, for instance, publishes many core standards in that area. While they might never totally replace other forms of energy sources, they are increasingly used in many countries in Europe and elsewhere, as you know.

Richard Brooks's picture
Richard Brooks on Jan 31, 2020

I briefly worked on IEC TC 57, workgroup 16 to develop energy market communication standards based on ebxml. It was a superb experience, like no other standards development initiative I've been involved with. Many IEC standards initiatives focus on technical matters, which is evidenced by this excellent article. I agree with all of the points Catherine makes here. Many of the techical standards for a Smart Grid are in place, thanks to IEC and NAESB, and some are being implemented. However, many non-technical matters are still "open issues" that are impeding Smart Grid progress, such as regulatory policies to address decentralized power supply control acrossing Federal and State jurisdictions in the US. Environmental goals of States and Companies continue to bump-and-grind with wholesale electricity markets. FERC's December 19 Order mandating a MOPR for PJM's Capacity market has released a deluge of passionate emotions and a hugh response from industry criticizing the Order. One key trend that desperatly needs to occur is greater collaboration across the entire stakeholder community to objectively address the areas where these tensions are most evident, Capacity Markets nationwide.

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