By Ramón Emilio De Jesús-Grullón, Microgrid Researcher, PUCMM

A (very) short history of The Energy Grid

A long, long time ago, before the copper wires and the alternating electron — well, the middle of the 1800s to be exact — electricity was an interesting but mostly a useless thing. That would suddenly change when at the end of the same century some bright individuals started toying with early electric lights and motors powered by on-site generators and, in a blink of an eye, electricity became cheap and constantly available — it became an utility— a very valuable one. Such its importance that we have built our society around its use and it’s embedded in every layer of our economic apparatus. We are effectively creatures of the Grid, and the Sun, once the God who used to govern our lives, now watches from above how humanity tames darkness. The grid has become a living thing and we use the energy that flows through its 25 Mkm of transmission and distribution veins at a current rate of 20,863 TWh/year, with little interruption, across all continents.

The architecture of today’s electricity grid is a testament of human endeavor and ingenuity, the sum product of innumerable technological advances, design decisions, and political policies over the course of an entire century. Ultimately, resulting in a process full of complexities ranging from technological challenges, political instability, to environmental disruption and national security issues.

Within 150 years, we have found ways to draw out a fossilized black-ish liquid from beneath the earth’s surface, investing a massive amount of capital and energy to transform such liquid into fuel, to then transport it over large distances using an ever-growing network of pipelines, burn it in massive — often inefficient—, centralized facilities that turn its molecules into electrons. Afterward, we transport those electrons over the same large distances across a spiderweb of copper wires to millions of end-users, that consume them unaware of the real-life magic happening behind such system, and the intricate set of principles, rules, and levels of authority that regulate and manage its complex mechanisms.

Principles for the 21st Century Grid

Electricity is intertwined in our world so much that it’s often being described as the “lifeblood of a modern society”. It is key to technological advancement and the underlying infrastructure of a wide range of products and services that are the basis of our day-to-day life and the motor of our economic productivity. However, the fact that electricity can be delivered at a reasonable cost to 89% of the entire human population through a century-old architecture is just a marvelous feature of engineering merged with complex social policies that promoted reliable supply to all citizens. Now, at the verge of climate catastrophe, the degree to which we can keep providing such valuable commodity and how we manage to do it has to change. The legacy 20th-century model of centralized, top-down electricity grid dispatch is currently being rethought. A confluence of technological advances and increased computational power (machine learning), the rise of cost-effective distributed energy resources (Solar Generation, Energy Storage, Flexible Loads), an explosion of novel IT solutions, and sophisticated software-enabling technologies (ranging from IoT sensors to smart devices, to Blockchain), are making possible to entirely rethink the way the 21st Century grid should operate, and therefore evolve to a new Transactive Grid, which core framework principles are: The Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitalization. fsfs

The 3D’s of the Transactive Grid: Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitization

We can see it. Climate Change is here. The recent IPCC Special Report has made clear the necessary paths in order to tackle the effects of global warming. Now, considering that around two-thirds of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) come from the energy sector, it is clear where the action is most needed. There is good news however, the industry is already shifting. Social, political, and economic pressures, such as the record-low solar prices at Brazil’s latest auction, are not only making appearances but putting the sector in the spotlight. If you look at the numbers, alternative energy costs have decreased to the point that they are now at or below the marginal cost of conventional generation. This trend is expected to continue driven by three factors: The 3D’s of the Transactive Grid: Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitization.

Decarbonization, Desentralization, Digitization

The 3D’s of the Transactive Grid: Decarbonization, Decentralization, and Digitization.

For the energy grid to evolve to this Transactive Grid it must confront a myriad of technological challenges and find ways to use and apply the latest available tools to solve them:

  • Mi(ni)crogrids to enhance resiliency and reliability.
  • Blockchain to track and share data in a trusted environment.
  • Sensors embedded in the Internet of Things (IoT) to digitize transactions between devices.
  • Machine Learning algorithms to automate, optimize and improve the grid.

Decarbonization – A Greener Footprint

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change included a commitment to reach greenhouse gas (GHG) emission neutrality between 2050 and 2100. As low-carbon electricity becomes the main energy carrier, it is expected that renewable electricity could provide just under 60% of total renewable energy use, two and a half times its contribution to overall renewable energy consumption today.

But how do we get there is the real question. Achieving an energy sector that meets the climate and global development objectives requires new business models, rapid innovation, and investment in technologies found in many sectors of the economy. It is in this nexus where researchers, innovators, and entrepreneurs are advancing in the technologies and market solutions that make this goal achievable.

Companies such as WePower, MyBit, and ImpactPPA are developing platforms to fund renewable energy projects through the sale and trading of energy produced by these systems through token(s) and other similar mechanisms. As the need for decarbonization continues to grow, the growth of such initiatives will follow, hopefully leading to a cycle of decarbonization.

Decentralization – Towards the Recursive Grid.

The constant increase of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) is creating new challenges for our legacy 20th-century model of centralized, top-down electricity grids. DER’s are typically not dispatchable – That is, grid operators cannot tap into them on demand – and operators do not have visibility of what is happening to those systems at the edge of the grid.

This model is currently being rethought. With the objective of coordinating the increasing number of small energy producers and flexible loads, within a trustless, open and decentralized network, key energy players such as Grid Singularity, are leading the development of the future transactive market models, enabled by intelligent software agents that perform grid communication and control functions for all the new physical assets.

According to Grid Singularity, the building blocks of such markets are based on the assumptions that the grid of the future will be:

  1. Fully Decentralized – both in terms of physical infrastructure and operational management. 
  2. Recursive – where each component and each boundary in the grid (eg. device, building, street, neighborhood, distribution grid) is a self-contained ecosystem, thus having operational decision-making capabilities. 
  3. Transparent – defined by complete transparency of market conditions, including the physical state of the grid, external conditions, as well as the behavior of market participants, all while protecting sensitive information.

Digitization – The Power of Data

The digitization of DERs, together with the deployment of smart metering and an explosion of cost-effective IoT sensors means that there is a growing amount of data about how electricity is being created. Data is becoming an asset and a currency by itself. The vast amount of information about generation source and location, grid connection state, voltage, frequency and so forth, generated by the thousands of devices, will be collected and used to enhance the grid performance and to create new business models in which that data is the currency.

Knowing that the centralized grid control model is not designed to handle all the information generated by DER-related activity in the network, the Energy Web Foundation (a global non-profit organization focused on accelerating blockchain technology across the energy sector) is creating a public, open-source decentralized network, capable of securely managing the electricity grid transactions, customers, and devices in what is promised to be the “The Grid’s Digital DNA”. These networks are going to allow users, and ultimately devices, to buy and sell energy in a peer-to-peer fashion, providing not only increased security but increased trust as well.

Digitization on the grid is the first step toward device-to-device transactions and economics, whereby any smart appliance equipped with energy storage is able to interface with the grid, buying and selling electricity motivated by user or market conditions for a profit. Once you have such infrastructure in place, the concept of a “Virtual Power Plant (VPP)” emerges. Distributed Energy Resources will become “Digital Twins” or representations of the physical assets in these Virtual Plants, allowing their aggregation in order to enhance the grid performance through services such as balancing, frequency regulation, backup power, congestion relief, and so on. Microgrids built within these Virtual Plants are not going to be the exception, but the norm.

An All-Encompassing Solution – Mi(ni)crogrids 

Due to the increase of extreme and disrupting climate-driven events resilience enhancement of power grids has been in the spotlight for government, industry, and energy sector researchers and engineers. Today, the existing power grid can assure service reliability during normal conditions and abnormal but foreseeable and low impact contingencies. However, the continuity of service during unexpected and high-impact events is still a great challenge. This is the reason why power systems are known to be reliable but not resilient.

The resiliency of a system is defined as its ability to return to equilibrium (stable operation point) after a major disruption event. Microgrids and Minigrids have emerged as tools to deal with major power disruption events due to the potential to recover in an effective quick manner, the ability to sustain the increasing penetration of Renewable Energy Sources (RES), and serve critical loads (e.g. hospitals, military bases, water treatment plants), which make them an important part of the evolution towards the Transactive Grid: Decentralized, Decarbonized, Digitalized. The Microgrid Research Team at PUCMM has an ongoing program with two lines of research each investigating the impact of microgrids on increasing the resilience of the energy distribution networks in the face of climate-driven events, and the state-of-the-art technologies (Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) Lab), tools (RT-LAB, Matlab&Simulink, OpendSS, QGIS) and techniques (Dynamic Formation of Microgrids, Fault Detection, Multi-Agent Control Strategies) that will be needed in the near future for its implementation.

A vision of Microgrids against Climate-Driven Events in Dominican Republic

Retrocausality predicts that the future can influence the past as much as the past can influence the future – that causation can run backward in time as well as forwards. So, if we truly believe in our innate capacity to face and overcome challenges and in technology transformative effects to help us get there, can we dare to dream about a future in which sustainability is a central part of our society? Does that make it real? If not, let’s make it so.

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PI – Ramón Emilio De Jesús-Grullón

Originally published at: Towards the Future: The 21st Century Grid Electric Grid

This article is derived from the Subject Data funded in whole or part by NAS and USAID under the USAID Prime Award Number AID-OAA-A-11-00012. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or NAS.

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