With the rapid adoption of renewable energy generation and electric vehicles, we are profoundly affecting the way in which electricity needs to be generated, stored and distributed. The Smart-Grid initiative is a broad-based and complex effort to digitize an otherwise analogue and very old infrastructure with the benefit that better use of information will lead to better monitoring and operation of the grid, resulting in a safer, more secure and efficient electricity infrastructure.
The magnitude of this overhaul was in evidence and on display at the recent Power Generation Week conference in Orlando, where Cambridge Consultants exhibited several exciting sensing and data management capabilities. All dimensions of the generation and distribution ecosystem were represented in the exhibit hall, from small suppliers to builders of ultra-efficient generating facilities. Earlier in December, my colleague Andrew Strong wrote a brief blog about this event and identified a number of the challenges facing this industry, including the urgent need to better monitor and maintain parts of its aging infrastructure. I took this cue and the opportunity to better understand challenges where condition monitoring is at issue and how different infrastructure elements such as substation power transformers are being impacted by these new generation and utilization trends.
Substation power transformers perform the important but un-heralded task of increasing and decreasing voltages so that the transmission of electricity over distance is efficient. They also play a crucial role in balancing variations in supply and demand and the synchronization of frequencies from disparate grid inputs.
With the changing nature of electricity supply and demand, several factors place a greater strain on the transmission infrastructure. Renewable wind and solar energy is weather and daylight dependent and requires longer transmission routes between generation and substation necessitating higher voltages. Vehicle electrification shifts demand patterns and peak loads. Additionally, as Andrew points out, large numbers of older conventional generating stations are slated to close. To manage these influences, Smart Grid control requires a greater degree of load balancing to maintain required voltage and frequency parameters. More frequent and extreme load balancing therefore requires that infrastructure components operate above their design specifications for extended periods of time and while this is not a new phenomenon, the existing mind-set for usage, monitoring, maintenance, repair and replacement requires fresh thinking and new technology for this part of the Smart Grid to keep pace.
Traditionally, operators have dealt with this through reactive maintenance and replacement strategies. The infrastructure is aging, for example the average transformer age is 40 years, and many organisations are realising that a proactive strategy is required to maintain service levels.
Monitoring systems like these require robust and reliable sensors capable of measuring key parameters, efficient and reliable data collection and transmission strategies, easy deployment and, most importantly, intelligent algorithms to provide operators with information for confident and proactive decision-making. Grid operators have a way to go in adopting a proactive mind-set but the Smart solutions to support them are emerging. With expertise in the development of novel and difficult sensing and measuring systems, world-class wireless and deep machine learning expertise Cambridge Consultants is well positioned to address many of the unmet challenges facing Smart Grid development.