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Grid Challenges: How to Strengthen Energy Supply with Environmental Monitoring

Unprecedented demand, aging infrastructure, and a global transition away from fossil fuels toward more variable renewable power sources all pose serious challenges to our electrical grids. It’s hoped that these can be met by replacing existing distribution networks with “smart grids”: versatile, two-way electrical grids compatible with a modern renewables-based energy economy.

Image Credit:Shutterstock/yelantsevv

In this article, we take a look at the main challenges facing our grids and the essential role that short-term environmental forecasting will play in the future of electricity distribution and production.

The Development of the Modern-day Electrical Grid

The 1920s saw the creation of the first commercial systems for power generation. These small-scale systems were generally designed to power individual factories and industrial facilities, and, as such, they were built on-site or nearby.1

Soon after, electric utility companies established centralized power stations, which took advantage of economy of scale to generate electricity and distribute it to larger areas. The trend of “centralization” of electrical power generation continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s with the development of large-scale synchronized AC grids throughout Europe and the USA.

These grids were formed by the interconnection of smaller networks, enabling power stations to share peak load and provide backup power across large interconnected regions.2,3 Over time, these networks grew into the vast interconnected grids which, today, provide on-demand power to around 7 billion people.4

Over the last 90 years or so, electrical grids have barely changed. Other than minor upgrades, these networks still behave in much the same way as they did in the 1930s. However, the operating conditions imposed upon today’s electrical grids far exceed their initial specifications. Increasing global population and industrialization have massively increased electricity demand, and our aging distribution systems are now struggling to keep up.

Loss of Power Security

Power supply issues like sags, spikes, and blackouts are worsening worldwide, both in severity and frequency.5 Manufacturers and industrial plants are especially vulnerable to power-supply anomalies, where such events can cause a complete reset of electronic control systems, failure of relay switches, or loss of a production batch that was interrupted during a critical stage of manufacturing.6,7 Increasing levels of automation in industry mean that the potential costs of power supply events are greater than ever before.

But beyond aging infrastructure and increasing demand, a more fundamental change is taking place that could usher in an entirely new paradigm in power distribution. The current climate crisis drives a movement away from centralized, high-output power stations (which largely run on fossil fuels) to decentralized, low-output renewable power installations such as wind, hydro power, and solar photovoltaics.

These energy sources have very different infrastructural requirements to traditional fuel-burning plants. Not only are they distributed over much larger areas and typically offer low output, but moment-to-moment power generation is dictated by environmental factors and weather conditions. This change presents a serious challenge for modern electrical grids and forces grid operators to rethink how electricity will be distributed in the modern age.

Building Smarter Grids

So-called “smart grids” offer a solution to the challenges of transitioning to renewable power sources and keeping up with increasing demand. Though there is no universal definition of a smart grid, the essential principle of their operation is that integrating increased control and monitoring technology into power grids can provide cheaper, more flexible, and more effective power distribution.

Such grids would take advantage of communications technology to optimize distributed energy resources, facilitating variable energy production from renewable installations as well as enabling the connection of “micro generators” such as domestic solar cell installations.3,8

Forecasting, Nowcasting and Grid Balancing

Sadly, the incompatibility of existing grid infrastructures with increasing deployment of renewables is already starkly apparent, with grid operators forced to make counterintuitive decisions to keep systems stable. These include paying wind and photovoltaic power facilities to switch off in favor of fuel-burning power stations.9,10 The ability to effectively manage fluctuations in power supply and demand (grid balancing) is crucial for the development of an effective renewables-based electrical grid.

It’s hoped that this can be achieved via “nowcasting”: very precise meteorological and environmental forecasting over short timescales (0-2 hours). Such predictive power could be enabled by networked sensors capable of taking a precise and up-to-date measurement of atmospheric conditions.

Data from these sensors can then be used to anticipate, for example, the solar irradiance incident on a photovoltaic installation or the average wind speed at a wind farm. Such predictions can be used to enable effective grid balancing by controlling compensation mechanisms, such as energy storage or backup generators, in order to address expected variations in distributed energy resources.11–14 Meteorological sensors can also be used to monitor grid conditions: for example, sensors from OTT HydroMet enabled increases in transmission efficiency by monitoring weather variations around transmission lines.

Accurate Weather Monitoring for Solar PV Installations

Global solar PV capacity is increasing rapidly, and today it makes up an appreciable fraction of worldwide renewable energy production.15,16 As well as being affected by panel soiling, the performance of photovoltaic installations is heavily dependent on a number of weather parameters including:

  • Solar irradiance
  • Wind speed and direction
  • Precipitation
  • Temperature
  • Humidity, dewpoint and air pressure

Monitoring all of these is vital in order to smoothly integrate photovoltaics with electrical grids.

Instruments from OTT HydroMet enable accurate and reliable monitoring of all factors affecting solar PV performance. In the presentation above, we explain how to monitor solar irradiance with our pyranometer range, photovoltaic panel soiling with DustIQ, and other meteorological factors with our Weather Sensor series. By monitoring all of these parameters, the amount of power produced by solar PV installations can be better monitored, controlled, and compensated for by the grid. For more information on the various elements to consider in creating a well-performing solar energy generating plant, visit the OTT HydroMet microlibrary of on-demand solar webinars.

Environmental Sensing Solutions from OTT HydroMet

With grid operators working to facilitate the expansion of distributed renewable power sources, accurate meteorological sensors are set to play a crucial role in the development of adaptive and versatile electrical grids. OTT HydroMet is well placed to meet these demands, providing world-leading expertise in all aspects of water and weather monitoring. As well as developing high-accuracy instrumentation for hydro power, solar PV monitoring and meteorological applications, OTT HydroMet offers decades of expertise in telemetry, remote sensor deployment, and integrated components for automatic meteorological stations through its range of well-established brands including Kipp & Zonen, Lufft, and OTT. 

To find out more about the environmental monitoring solutions offered by OTT HydroMet, get in touch with us today:

USA/North America

Rest of World

 ​​​​​​References and Further Reading

1.           History of Electrification Sites.

2.           Borbely, A.-M. & Kreider, J. F. Distributed Generation: The Power Paradigm for the New Millennium. (CRC Press, 2001).

3.           Dileep, G. A survey on smart grid technologies and applications. Renewable Energy 146, 2589–2625 (2020).

4.           Ritchie, H. & Roser, M. Access to Energy. Our World in Data (2019).

5.           Byrd, H. & Matthewman, S. Exergy and the City: The Technology and Sociology of Power (Failure). Journal of Urban Technology 21, 85–102 (2014).

6.           After a storm: if you lost power, check for unseen problems at your industrial facility that could cost you.

7.           Power Outage at Samsung’s Fab Destroys 3.5% of Global NAND Flash Output For March.

8.           Hall, S. & Foxon, T. J. Values in the Smart Grid: The co-evolving political economy of smart distribution. Energy Policy 74, 600–609 (2014).

9.           Coyne, B. As solar breaks records, National Grid mulls turning it off. (2020).

10.        Grid pays £6m to turn off wind farm turbines | HeraldScotland.

11.        Badrinath Krishna, V., Wadman, W. & Kim, Y. NowCasting: Accurate and Precise Short-Term Wind Power Prediction using Hyperlocal Wind Forecasts. (2018). doi:10.1145/3208903.3208919.

12.        Zhang, J., Verschae, R., Nobuhara, S. & Lalonde, J.-F. Deep Photovoltaic Nowcasting. arXiv:1810.06327 [cs] (2018).

13.        Solar nowcasting with machine vision. The Alan Turing Institute

14.        Paulescu, M., Paulescu, E. & Badescu, V. Nowcasting solar irradiance for effective solar power plants operation and smart grid management. in Predictive Modelling for Energy Management and Power Systems Engineering 249–270 (Elsevier, 2021). doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-817772-3.00009-4.

15.        Energy, Vehicles, Sustainability – 10 Predictions for 2020. BloombergNEF (2020).

16.        World now has 583.5 GW of operational PV. pv magazine International


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