21/02/2017 – Independent / ERIGrid / Climate Change / Smart Grid Systems / Energy
The EU-funded ERIGrid project is spearheading crucial research aimed at improving the flexibility of smart grid systems. As the project launches its second call for transnational access to Europe’s leading smart grid infrastructure, Project Co-ordinator, Dr Thomas Strasser, describes ERIGrid’s progress to date, its dual focus on research and equipment sharing, and how external users can harness its impressive testing and simulation facilities across the continent. Written by Industry Networker’s Helena Haimes.
As far as CO2 emission reduction targets are concerned, Europe is leading the international charge. The EU’s 2020 Climate and Energy Package, set out a decade ago and enacted into legislation in 2009, established three key targets in the uphill struggle against climate change: a 20-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from levels measured in 1990; a 20-per-cent improvement in energy efficiency, and a 20-per-cent contribution by renewables to the EU energy mix – all by 2020.
However, as countries in Europe and beyond rapidly ramp up the proportion of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources in their overall power output, many existing grid infrastructures are proving woefully inadequate. The intermittent nature of solar and wind – the sun is not always shining and the wind does not blow on demand – requires flexible grid systems that are able to store and distribute the electricity they generate. By getting to grips with consumer demand and enabling resources to be allocated more efficiently, smart grid technologies hold the key to achieving reliable and sustainable energy system configurations in the future. A well-designed smart grid holds the potential to provide an unprecedented level of reliability by utilising two-way communication technology (already the status quo in other industries) to automate everything from power plants and wind farms, to home and business electricity consumers.
“One of the issues is that generation isn’t as predictable as it used to be when compared with traditional generation methods such as nuclear or gas,” explains Dr Strasser. “That’s a challenge because one moment you could generate a lot of energy, but it might only be available for a couple of minutes before it drops. With small, distributed generation units it’s more difficult to manage power distribution and that challenge needs to be combated somehow. It’s also time-consuming and costly to build new lines. Smart grid solutions can help because they can make use of existing infrastructure in a more optimised way when compared to traditional solutions.”
It was this urgent requirement for an integrated research infrastructure focused on smart grid systems that led the European Commission to launch its ERIGrid initiative. In Europe especially, where CO2 emission reduction targets are so ambitious, a pressing need exists to integrate alternative energy into grid infrastructure as efficiently and responsively as possible. “The project is unique,” Dr Strasser tells us. “There are plenty of other research infrastructure projects on-going, but to my knowledge this is the only one related to smart grids that’s currently funded by the European Commission.”
A network of excellence
The ERIGrid project brings together an impressive, pan-European consortium of researchers, academics, utility companies, manufacturers and testing specialists – all unified by a shared interest in smart grid technologies. A high proportion of the members worked together before as part of the DERlab (European Distributed Energy Resources Laboratories) initiative. “DERlab was conceived as a network of excellence and developed into an association of mainly European members, although there are also some US members involved,” says Dr Strasser. “This consortium of research institutions, utilities and also testing companies and some manufacturers, have a common interest in distributed energy resources and smart grids, with a special focus on lab-based activities. All of the DERlab members and most ERIGrid members have significant smart grid infrastructure available locally.”
Many of the project’s members are also involved in an additional consortium called the European Energy Research Alliance (EERA) – a group of universities and institutions with the joint aim to foster technological innovation in the continent’s energy sector. This group is one of the pillars of the European SET (Strategic Energy Technology) Plan, which, despite having a broader remit than ERIGrid, also covers smart grid research involving the same project partners.
The ERIGrid project is led by Austria’s largest non-university research centre, the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT) – an institution with a strong track record of solid research into energy system infrastructure. Amongst other centres within AIT, the Centre for Energy houses around 70 researchers dedicated to working on smart grid research and technology development, making it Austria’s largest such institute. “We’re an applied research-orientated R&D centre rather than a university,” emphasises Dr Strasser. “So, when we carry out our research it’s always with an application in mind. We see ourselves as somewhere between university research and industrial applications – our research orientates its results towards industry.” He compares AIT’s dual academic and industrial remit to those of other European research institutions and ERIGrid project members such as Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute; Netherlands-based TNO; VTT from Finland and the Spanish organisation Tecnalia.
In total, the project features 18 of Europe’s top research institutions that have joined forces in order to pool together their know-how and improve research infrastructures within the smart grid sector. The various fields of expertise that are brought in by the range of partners feed in to the project’s holistic ethos. ERIGrid is intentionally broad-minded in its approach, with research topics including technical components from grid infrastructure and storage, through to generation and consumption, as well as ICT, governance, customer markets and metrology.
Validation is key
Within its holistic approach, the ERIGrid project places particular emphasis on analysis, validation and testing of smart grid solutions – an area that was identified as in urgent need of further research when the initiative was first conceived. While previous investigations have managed to validate individual aspects of a smart grid, there has been very little research into entire, integrated systems and their various complex configurations.
“The validation and testing of smart grid solutions in particular is not easy,” affirms Dr Strasser. “We’re currently very good on the component level, so we can test distributed energy resources like photovoltaic systems, energy storage systems such as batteries, charging systems for electric vehicles and so on. So, that area is already solved – existing laboratory environments, standards and procedures are available to test those kinds of devices. It has become more crucial to test whole smart grid configurations. Nowadays, more ICT equipment is available, making possible the remote control of devices – and those require corresponding communication systems. In our projects, we have to provide methods for testing such configurations.
The consortium’s emphasis on validation and testing extends to field demonstrations, occasionally including field testing, as Dr Strasser explains: “We have new approaches that we are analysing, and that may potentially also be demonstrated in the field,” he tells us. “We cannot always afford expensive demonstration projects, but they’re a great way to get experience with real equipment and a real-world set-up. The idea is to develop the corresponding validation processes so as to test what’s possible when using simulations or in the lab, or in a combination of set-ups. We’re looking to get enough evidence from the aforementioned validation tools in order to validate a smart grid solution without the need to implement demonstration projects. This approach will speed up the whole development, validation and deployment process of new smart grid solutions.”
Consumption behaviours are another focal area for the ERIGrid research team. “We have more and more opportunities to look at consumption behaviour,” explains Dr Strasser. “Local storage possibilities in batteries, for example, or chemical and thermal storage; also storage capabilities of electric vehicles could potentially be used. There’s much more possibility when compared to the past, which also makes systems more complex operationally. So, on the one hand, there are a lot of promising possibilities to be discovered, explored and potentially utilised – on the other hand, corresponding solutions still need to be developed in order to take advantage of the possibilities.
Barriers to adoption
The main barriers to broader, faster adoption of smart grid technologies are regulatory, economic and technological in nature, as Dr Strasser describes: “Regulation is an important issue that needs tackling – our current rules need to be adapted,” he stresses. “There’s a great deal of on-going activity across the various EU member states.” As far as costs are concerned, economic feasibility can be an issue when products are produced in quantities too small to enable production costs to be affordable enough for most consumers. That situation will improve as larger investments allow for larger production runs, such as how the cost of photovoltaic systems has reduced dramatically over the last 10 years, he explains.
Similar progress is also projected for battery and energy storage systems, which are expensive and currently unaffordable for residential customers. “With on-going technology development, and more and more capability from manufacturers, it’s expected that they’ll become cheaper – similar developments can also be expected from smart grids,” says ERIGrid’s Project Co-ordinator. “On the technology side, products and solutions need to be developed so they are broadly available. If you look at ICT systems, additional functionality might be needed – more control with corresponding devices such as battery systems could also be necessary, and communication infrastructure needs to be improved as well. Remote control devices can offer huge potential but on the other hand there are cyber-security issues that are cropping up increasingly. As such, when we validate a particular smart grid solution, we also look at potential cyber threats as part of our methods.”
One of the most exciting aspects of the ERIGrid project is its focus on transnational participation. Both industrial and academic smart grid researchers are consistently encouraged to apply to make fully supported use of the consortium’s facilities and expertise, with the access being funded through the project and made available to selected partners free of charge. “ERIGrid is funded under the research infrastructure arm of the European Commission,” explains Dr Strasser. “The idea is to provide excellent research infrastructure and facilities – in our case, it’s smart-grid-related laboratories and corresponding lab-based methods, to external users. If other researchers, companies, manufacturers or utility companies have specific problems and don’t have the validation facilities that we have, then they can apply to use our infrastructure and development for their project – that’s one of ERIGrid’s core ideas.”
Call-outs are every six months, with potential users required to briefly summarise how they envisage making use of ERIGrid’s facilities in a ‘mini proposal’. “We need to identify what it is that potential users want to do and check whether our laboratory infrastructure is sufficient to perform the tests that they need to conduct,” concludes Dr Strasser. “The proposals are put before an evaluation panel, which also involves external researchers and industry members. Our aim is to have an independent, fair and transparent review process.” With such comprehensive support and knowhow, the ERIGrid consortium provides an extraordinary opportunity for both private and public partners who want to leverage on the continent’s most extensive network of R&D capabilities for advancing the potential of smart grid technologies.
On 15th March, ERIGrid opened its second call for users from research, academia and industry to apply for free access to Europe’s leading smart grid research infrastructure. For more details on how to apply, visit: www.erigrid.eu (Deadline: 15th June 2017)