Interview with Dr Gerhard Salge

“The grid has to become stronger, smarter and greener”

Traditional electricity grids are expected to continue to transform, driven by trends such as an increase in renewable energy integration, a move towards larger interconnected networks, the transition to two-way power flows and growing cybersecurity risks. New technologies and innovations will be key to keeping the power grids continually updated and aligned with these trends, believes Dr Gerhard Salge, global head of technology at ABB Power Grids. In a candid conversation with Power Line, Dr Salge spoke about the trends, challenges and opportunities associated with modern electricity grids. Excerpts….

When you look at electricity systems across the world, what are the trends that you see, especially the changes in utility requirements?

Electricity grids are changing in all regions globally. On the generation side, there are more complexities in terms of many more in-feed points, especially with variable renewables, which are increasing significantly all over the world. This affects both transmission and distribution. On the electrical consumption side also we are changing from consumers to so-called “prosumers”, who are consuming electricity but are also partly producing electricity. This results in significant changes in the management of grids. There is less experience available as to how and when the in-feed will come because renewables are less predictable. Meanwhile, consumption profiles are also changing. Overall, with grid complexity and flexibility increasing, new technologies and innovations need to be developed to preserve and improve the availability and reliability of the grid.

We have been hearing about these changes that we are seeing for quite some time. Have they accelerated in the recent past?

There are three reasons why these changes have been accelerating lately. First, on the cost side, we see that the cost of variable renewable energy is constantly going down. This is stimulating more investments in electricity generation and technologies. This is becoming self-accelerating as economies of scale further increase this development. Second, in more and more regions worldwide, climate change is becoming a stronger driver. Governments and the public are requesting an acceleration in such investment. The third element is the increasing focus across stakeholders, on the criticality of the grid. There has also been an increase in natural disasters and blackouts in some regions, and technology and innovation can help manage the grid better as we strive to meet the increasing demand for electricity in India, which is expected to double over the next decade.

So, in addition to increasing complexity, an enormous amount of additional electricity demand also needs to be managed in the country.

What does the grid have to become, if you were to say it in three words?

The grid has to become stronger, smarter and greener. The underlying key technology topic is that we need flexibility and investments that are future-proof. So the investment done today should not be just good enough for today; it should be flexible enough for the future, to turn future challenges into opportunities.

What are some of the technologies that can help the grid become stronger?

A stronger grid can be achieved by connecting grids that are not interconnected today in order to balance and be able to transport energy from one to another. Here, we have the option to do it on AC networks as it is done in most regions of the world. Then, there is HVDC technology, which can transport energy over long distances and can exchange energy over both time zones and climate zones. When we move towards more and more renewables in the grid, the problem cannot be solved by storage devices alone. For the northern hemisphere, for example, in winters it becomes impossible to store the energy needed using any kind of technology. So, what is needed is an interconnection across climate zones in order to exchange energy. And here, HVDC technology is the superior one. The latest technology developments in HVDC not only allow energy to be transported back and forth, but also enable the grids to support each other in technical ways. Hence, if one grid becomes weaker because it is heavily loaded and the voltage or the frequency goes down, the other grid with stronger capacity in terms of generation can support and stabilise both grids.

Further, new technology developments in semiconductors, converters, conductors and AC power quality technologies such as FACTS devices provide us with completely new ways of integrating electricity from wind and solar parks into the grid, and also provide voltage and frequency stabilisation in the stronger grids of the future.

What are the technologies that can help a utility make its grid smarter?

The underlying and dominating topic around a smarter grid is that of digital technology. Digital in the grid space is accelerating year by year because of the enormous progress in processing power in data storage and communication capabilities. How we are phrasing digital is under the headline of “digital enterprise”. Digital enterprise for us represents a digital framework where our customers can integrate existing solutions to manage and visualise the grid as well as their processes. Some prominent examples of what is possible through a digital enterprise are geospatial arrangements to view equipment status, and assess workforce and maintenance requirements.

Another application of digital enterprises is predictive operations, which means we can operate devices in various scenarios to decide their optimum for the overall operation of the grid. One more example is that of virtual reality and augmented reality, which allow a totally different way of grid planning and operation. Using such technology, we can carry out planning and execution of projects and train stakeholders before any asset physically exists.

What are the technologies that are available to make the grid more stable and to accommodate the large influx of renewables?

The greener grid goes hand in hand with the stronger grid. On the green side, we see three key elements. The first element is the integration of renewables. To integrate solar and wind park energy is the largest contribution on the greener side. The second element is the components, technologies and materials that are used to become greener and environmentally more compatible. Examples of this are the new insulation gases for gas insulated switchgear as alternatives to SF6, and alternatives for the oil used in transformers as insulation medium such as ester fluids. Also, we need to be able to use new technologies where we are able to limit the noise impact and electromagnetic radiation from the equipment. The third element is energy efficiency, which is the key to reducing losses. For example, over the past six to eight years, we have been able to introduce lower loss semiconductors and new valve configurations in HVDC to reduce losses by up to 60 per cent. Losses are the dominating factor when you look at the life cycle assessment of HVDC.

As the grid becomes more connected, does that make it more vulnerable to cyberthreats?

While stronger grid elements of the power electronic devices can control load flow and also connect sub-grids, it also means that if you have a fault due to a cyberattack or a physical failure, you can limit the propagation of the fault in other parts of the grid. For grid operators, the philosophy is evolving from only building reliable and strong components and managing the grid by an “n-1” criterion to undertaking resilient grid management with an “n-x” requirement. This means we can now prevent faults from resulting in any significant consequences.

Our cybersecurity philosophy is to create the most modern concept of protection. What we are providing is the minimum requirement for any component or solution to make it as safe as possible. For the really critical core infrastructure devices, we are providing new technical solutions such as quantum encrypted keys where it is almost impossible to break into those systems. We, together with our customers, need to find the right and the appropriate level of protection that is needed for the specific segment of the grid. It is a topic that is very important and we are discussing this very seriously with our customers.

So far, we have talked about what is required from a technology perspective. What else is required in the system?

These developments can only happen if there is good collaboration. All stakeholders need to work together, top down and bottom up, from a technology and a grid perspective. Governments, regulators, utilities and suppliers need to work together and discuss the challenges to turn them into opportunities. An environment needs to be created where this can happen from an investment perspective as also from a regulation perspective. Regulations need to be set in a way that utilities and other investors can make the investments needed to receive a return on their investments from a financial perspective and also provide companies like ABB the chance to introduce and pilot new technologies and spread them out after a test period in a big way.

Another area of cooperation is collaboration between different technology companies. Large power technology players such as ABB Power Grids will work more closely with startups and with companies from other industries such as gaming for technologies like virtual reality or cybersecurity and communications.

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