The climate crisis is affecting people around the world. At the same time, there is increasing pressure on governments, companies, and everyone to make their contribution and reduce their carbon footprint. As part of the Paris Agreement, many countries and industries have already adopted green practices to reduce carbon emissions. Industries that previously relied more on fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and gas are also increasingly switching to renewable energies. Radical change must take place in these areas in particular. Leading oil and gas giants are setting ambitious net-zero and carbon emissions targets and investing heavily in renewable energy to address this mammoth task.
Germany has also set high standards for decarbonization. It has developed appropriate strategies – for example, for the increased use of renewable energies, the electrification of the heating and transport industry, or the development of efficient battery technology for energy storage. Intelligent and flexible networks (smart grids), supported by digital technology platforms, play a significant role here. Current studies show the positive effects of these brilliant, flexible power networks on the environment and long-term cost savings in the billions.
The Current Challenge
High-voltage electricity is usually carried from large power plants to cities and industrial areas via transmission grids. In local substations, this electricity is then downgraded to a low-voltage level and delivered to the respective end-users via the distribution network by Distribution Network Operators (DNOs). The DNOs operate the overhead and underground cables that lead to homes and businesses. The grid is unidirectional and based on predictable, controllable, and centralized power generation.
However, this process is already changing: Smaller power plants with the potential to distribute renewable energy are replacing the large power plants. Solar cells on roofs enable households to generate their electricity and feed the surplus back into the grid. Proactive communities are building small-scale domestic, commercial, and industrial power generation plants on their property, taking advantage of incentives provided by the law. These decentralized energy sources are connected directly to the local distribution grids. As a result, DNOs are increasingly becoming Distribution System Operators (DSO) and must implement new solutions for real-time load balancing and scheduling in the distribution network.
Due to its volatile nature, the demand and supply of renewable electricity are more complex and challenging to forecast. Added to this is the increasing spread of electric vehicles, which have a high power requirement that roughly corresponds to an average household. Another group of devices that are becoming more common is, for example, heat pumps and electric heaters. To address the growing energy demand, storage systems utilizing lithium-ion, hydrogen, solid-state, and vanadium redox flow batteries (VRFB) can be deployed to replace traditional energy use, storage and distribution.
In this new scenario, DSOs need to manage both the renewable and traditional energies in the grid. To control the bidirectional flow of energy, significant investments in the modernization of the network infrastructure are necessary. A cost-effective, efficient and practical option is introducing an intelligent system that predicts and actively controls the energy flows in the grid at all voltage levels.
The Look Ahead
Distribution System Operators (DSOs) are the evolution of Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) with more significant roles and responsibilities that adapt to changing and new consumer demands. DSOs can flexibly design the grid for active energy management with sufficient capacity with targeted infrastructure improvements. This also ensures better transparency for the customer. The platform, on which customers, suppliers, aggregators, and other stakeholders work together, also enables energy suppliers to offer consumers new and improved services at affordable prices.
The transition to DSOs requires the integration of new, practical functions into the existing, traditional possibilities. Above all, data is the necessary key to this process: Precise, reliable, and detailed information and insights into the performance and condition of the systems right through to design data – and their actual operation with real-time and historical records – are of crucial importance. Optimizing the platform in the interest of all stakeholders requires comprehensive market integration. The sharing of data on network capacities in different timeframes through the transmission and distribution networks also ensures that customers have access to a wide range of energy services that were previously unavailable.
The associated infrastructure costs include new, innovative IT systems with enhanced functions and greater data storage capacity. In addition, the range of different connection types for households, companies, and power generators is expanding – so that a suitable alternative to conventional grid construction can be found, DSOs must act flexibly.
The smart grid or intelligent network is, therefore, the future. New features and capabilities of the DSOs are based on the smart grid and require a fundamental transformation to make better use of sensors, control devices, and telecommunications. Market integration and advanced customer offerings are enabled with the support of the DSOs. They also have an essential role in solving the over-production of renewable energy and the lack of demand to use it. On the other hand, energy providers should also advise consumers on energy efficiency and help them reduce their CO 2-Reduce emissions and energy bills. Although intelligent grids are still in their infancy, they are paving the way for newer technologies in line with global climate goals. Distributed energy management, smart meters, and energy storage systems are just the first of many new technologies to come.