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The ideal smart grid doesn’t exist

There are many different ways to set up a smart grid. The necessary technology is by and large already available. What is lagging behind in some cases is the implementation as well as acceptance of the technology. We sat down with Arno Ritzenthaler, CEO of Smart Grids-Plattform Baden-Württemberg, who gave us an overview of the current situation surrounding smart grids in Germany and the rest of Europe.

 

What would you say makes the ideal smart grid?

The ideal smart grid doesn’t exist. Intelligent power grids have many different fields of application and design requirements. That’s why we always talk about smart grids in the plural. Different target groups have different expectations. As a general rule, we can say that the principal task of smart grids is to intelligently integrate everything that the connected generation and consumption units do across all grid levels in order to use the available resources as efficiently as possible and guarantee a sustainable, economical and efficient power supply.

By using modern information and communications technology across the board, from power plants to the grid endpoints, we can reliably orchestrate consumer flexibility and the ever-increasing load peaks based on the many decentralized and volatile inflows of renewable energy. Overhauling power grids with smart technology is one of the crucial steps we must take in order to significantly reduce the pressing need for grid expansion.

 

What is still needed to enable the implementation of intelligent power grids?

One of the most important steps in implementing intelligent grids is the digitalization of grid endpoints. This means the blanket use of smart meters and widespread user acceptance of the new technology. Without this systemic infrastructure, paired with new load-dependent pricing models and other necessary added-value services – primarily to offer consumers features for easier use – it will be difficult to convey how pressing the need for greater intelligence in the utility grid system really is.

 

Vast amounts of data must be exchanged between every person and element within a smart grid. What data security precautions are currently being taken?

Everyone responsible knows that cybersecurity and privacy have a key role to play in ensuring that grids are properly converted, thus enabling a successful energy transition. In Germany, the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) has established a security standard that many experts say is among the most stringent in the world.

 

Do you view smart grids more as local supply systems, or can they cover areas as large as existing systems?

Many of the required smart grid components are already used in large parts of the utility grid system today. But the path to across-the-board intelligent grids with all the bells and whistles is – as in every other area of the energy transition – a long one which must continually be adapted to new developments.

For instance, we initiated our project SINTEG, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, by establishing stable local power supply systems via autonomous grid cells. They are operated according to the motto “think globally, act locally” and are now being gradually interconnected so that they can provide each other with support, thus creating stable, resilient grid units which can be rolled out all across Germany in the foreseeable future.

 

What will be the greatest hurdles in turning our existing energy system into an intelligent one?

In my opinion, one of the most critical points will be laying down binding design criteria for grid and metering point operators. The cost distribution formula imposed by the current regulations only aims to meet the status quo in terms of task fulfillment and quality. But with the knowledge that various new requirements will come into play in the future, such as system services for integrating virtual power plants, a great deal of innovative power remains unexploited since an incalculably high risk prevents smaller market participants in particular from investing.

Once regulations have eliminated the final hurdles so that hardware and software developers, energy generators and consumers alike can act in concert, Germany and the rest of Europe will emerge from the testing and demonstration phase and finally be able to scale up. Then we will be able to talk about a single smart grid that links together the many smaller ones.