Historically, it was acceptable to go with the flow. Things happened slowly so you could accommodate them slowly. This was fine for about 50 years but not any more. The pace of change is now much, much faster, and by the time the changes actually come along, inappropriate investments might have already been made.
Earlier this week, ScienceOmega.com
reported on EirGrid’s ambitious targets for renewable electricity
generation in the Republic of Ireland. By 2020, the Irish government intends to obtain 40 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources, 50 per cent of which will be directly connected to the distribution system. Helping to achieve this vision is ESB Networks – the owner and builder of both Transmission and Distribution Networks, and the licensed operator of the electricity distribution system in the Republic of Ireland. Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board (ESB) is a semi-State organisation, meaning that whilst it is owned by the Irish government and its people, it receives no public money. Instead, it raises its own funding from the market, from customers and from overseas revenue channels.
I spoke to Anthony Walsh, Specifications Manager at ESB Networks, to find out more about Ireland’s vision for future electricity generation. As Walsh explained, ESB is working across a broad range of sectors to prepare the country for a sustainable electric future.
"We’ve got eCars, we’ve got ESB International (ESBI) which conducts consultancy abroad, we’ve got ESB Networks covering smart meters and smart grids, and all of these come under the umbrella of utility," he explained. "Historically, it was acceptable to go with the flow. Things happened slowly so you could accommodate them slowly. This was fine for about 50 years but not any more. The pace of change is now much, much faster, and by the time the changes actually come along, there is the danger that inappropriate investments might already have been made. What we are trying to do is to predict these changes, and if possible, to direct them. We can then decide upon what investments will actually be needed in light of what we already know.
"This is what Smart Grid is all about. Smart Grid involves using the assets that we have in the most economic way to accommodate the requirements of our customers. It is not an end in itself. People sometimes think that we spend money on Smart Grid because we wouldn’t want a 'stupid' grid, but in reality, the reason for Smart Grid is to provide a more economical supply of electricity and to get the maximum benefit from what we have. It’s a tool that will result in fewer kilowatt hours, reduced demand on networks and infrastructure, and if we’re clever about our approach, it can accommodate a wide range of benefits to customers."
ESB ecars was established in 2010 in an attempt to support the increasing numbers of electric vehicles on Irish roads. Providing charging points, however, comprises only a small part of the work that is being conducted by this branch of the organisation.
"How does ESB view electric vehicles?" asked Walsh. "Partly, we are concerned with public interest. We want to promote something that will reduce CO2
emissions. However, we also need to have networks capable of charging these vehicles. If a high volume of electric vehicles were to come online at once, we would require a large investment in our networks. This would mean that our customers would incur extra costs. On the other hand, if electric vehicles can be charged in such a way that the charge is spread out over time, our networks may require no extra investment.
By investing in electric cars, ESB has collected data that can be used to inform future roll-out schemes
"If we can get in early and set the standard, we are more likely to achieve a situation in which we know what can and can’t be done in this area. In a way, Ireland has a good starting position because it is not fragmented in the way that many other European countries are. The ESB represents one coherent group: one regulator and one transmission operator. The ability to liaise together very quickly, allows us to make informed decisions.
"For example, some authorities have rolled out electric charging schemes, only to find that they don’t have sufficient numbers of electric vehicles to test their system. In contrast, ESB has purchased 50 electric cars, some of which are used as part of the ESB commercial fleet and some of which are passenger eCars that carry out usage and behavioural research studies. We have given the eCars to residents free-of-charge to trial for three months, and we have installed home charge points so that drivers can charge their cars overnight.
"Because of this initiative, we now have electric vehicles driving around. We have collected realistic data concerning how the cars are being used and charged. Moreover, all of the cars have GPS in them and log various pieces of information. We can discern people’s driving styles and make tailored recommendations on how to operate the vehicles in a more efficient manner."
This information has allowed ESB to roll out its electric vehicle scheme in an evidence-based manner. They have also been able to use data from other countries to generate a more accurate picture of the behaviours and anxieties associated with electric vehicle use.
"We started by looking at the types of journey that people were making," explained Walsh. "During the course of a day, people tend to make journeys that are shorter than 40km. However, we also deliberately gave some of our vehicles to those making much longer journeys. For example, the Nissan Leaf has a range of about 160km but the trip from Cork to Dublin is around 260km. Using the fast charging infrastructure that has been installed around the country, it only takes approximately 25 minutes to charge the electric vehicle to 80 per cent capacity. This means that motorists can use the fast charge points in one of the service stations along the route.
"We have also found that public charging spots are necessary in order to prevent range anxiety. People are afraid that they will run out of charge. Really, it’s an unfounded fear, but it’s certainly a persistent one. The best example of this was in Tokyo. Electric cars tended to swarm like bees around a particular fast-charging station. They never left its vicinity. In light of this, an additional station was installed on the other side of the city. Sure enough, everybody travelled all the way across Tokyo, yet they never had to use the other station. It simply acted as a safety-blanket.
There are three main types in ESB's Charge Post Infrastructure
: home and workplace charge points (440 installed to date), public charge points (340 installed to date) and fast charge points (30 installed to date).
"We are also working in other areas," Walsh continued. "We quickly realised that it was a good idea to have two charge points per charge post so that people can charge two cars in two parking spots. The parking spaces themselves need to be visible, so we painted them blue. The next issue is that people need to be able to book their space for charging in advance, and they need to know whereabouts there is going to be a free space. ESB ecars also developed an eCar mobile app
so that people can use their smartphones to identify and reserve their nearest charge points."
Walsh went on to explain how ESB is also working in a broader sense to create a Smart Grid for Ireland. He is confident that the many different facets of this vision will come together to create an electricity system that can match Ireland’s renewable ambitions for the future.
"We now have the ability – using new communications technologies – to get more out of our existing assets," he said. "A good example of this would be our ‘self-healing’ networks. We have a number of switches on our networks that are scattered all around the country. We installed these to allow us to cope with things like falling trees and lightning, that hit overhead lines from time to time. The switches allow us to deactivate faulty sections of line.
"Traditionally, if a line developed a fault, it would switch itself off. Our technicians would then go out into the field, locate the fault and reactivate the good sections of network. They would then isolate the faulty section and repair it. By using a new piece of software on our existing networks, we have been able to automate these switches so that they reactivate without the need for any communication. They can restore the electricity supply to everybody except those who are covered by the faulty section. The software locates the fault so that we know exactly where to send our technicians. This means that when problems occur, most customers maintain their supply and only a small percentage are inconvenienced.
"We are also experimenting with Conservation Voltage Reduction (CVR). In theory, if you reduce the voltage on a network, you increase losses. This is a well-known fact. However, when you reduce voltage, the consumption of consumer appliances – washing machines, dishwashers, lighting – will also fall. This phenomenon can actually over-compensate for losses on the network. If you reduce the voltage by say, one per cent, you might actually decrease demand by about 0.6 per cent. On our networks, we could reduce the voltage by up to five per cent and achieve a reduction in consumption. This process is more complicated than I am making it out to be, but in urban areas, it might be a feasible strategy."
Clearly, ESB, EirGrid and Ireland’s government are working throughout a diverse spectrum of areas to secure a sustainable, efficient and cost-effective electricity generation system for the country’s future. If the evolution of the industry occurs as expected, smart investments now could pay off for years to come.