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Intelligent switchboards of the future

Intelligent switchboards of the future

Wunderland Kalkar, a children’s theme park  in Dusseldorf, Germany attracts over 300,000 people every year. The park has over 40 rides, a hotel and a restaurant on site, so it may come as a surprise that the attraction was once an unused nuclear power plant. Over time places and technologies have to change in order to keep up with user demand, especially in industry.

Here Nick Boughton, sales manager at industrial systems integrator, Boulting Technology discusses how switchboards need to adapt to keep up with increased energy demands.

The future of electricity

In the UK, the majority of electricity comes from large, centralised power plants. Although this approach enables economies of scale in the energy sector, it means that customers, particularly those within inner cities depend on long-distance transmission to receive power.

In a bid to reduce energy costs and improve reliability, customers are turning to local energy generation — power that is generated in underutilised spaces such as rooftops, landfills and empty car parks.

Local energy generation reduces costs and improves the overall efficiency of the power system. It minimises line losses and extends the lifespan of existing transmission infrastructure by minimising wear from overuse. It also creates a stronger, more resilient network of power in the face of extreme weather, human error and outsider attacks.

The benefits of local energy generation are clear for home owners, but commercial and industrial properties are also starting to explore the alternatives to the national grid.

The icrogrid is a localised group of electricity sources and loads that normally operate as part of the national grid, but can disconnect and function autonomously if necessary.

These types of grids are maturing quickly within the commercial and industrial sectors in North America and Asia Pacific, but lack of standards limit them on a global scale. Having these standards in place would mean that manufacturers could access a more secure supply, avoiding regular power interruptions that can cause high revenue losses and long periods of downtime.

Renewables

Renewable sources currently produce more than 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity and targets set by the European Union mean that this is likely to rise to 30 per cent by 2020.

Countries in Europe are building increasing amounts of renewable capacity in order to reduce their carbon emissions and boost supply security. Last year, Denmark’s wind farms supplied 140 per cent of the country’s demand and Germany received all of its power from renewable energy sources for an entire day. While these were planned events, in May 2016, the UK hit the headlines as it had no coal-fired power stations meeting electricity demand for a short space of time as a result of the partial failure of a power import cable.

It is events like this that highlight the eventual need for a more long-term market supply. Currently, solar energy is limited to daylight hours and wind power cannot be harvested all year round. The only way to guarantee a 24-hour renewable supply is to have a method of storage.

Leveraging car and mobile phone developments, modern battery storage systems will soon be used to store renewable energy. In just a few year’s time, battery storage will be commonplace not just at grid level, but on industrial sites, office blocks and in the home too.

Intelligent switchboards

Switchboards sit at the heart of an infrastructure and therefore need to be able to make intelligent decisions regarding where its power is coming from and going to. The majority of switchboards are capable of redirecting energy to several sources when prompted, but there are very few that allow plant or office managers to make the most of their electricity supply.

The rise of Industry 4.0 and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) gives hope that facilities will soon be able to operate autonomously. Smart sensors, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and distributed control systems (DCS) are already widely used in the industry — intelligent switchboards could be the next step.

An intelligent switchboard should be able to schedule power use, based on the previous operating times of each application. If it receives power from renewable sources, it could use these predictions to supply energy back to the grid, keeping energy costs as low as possible for the owner of the facility. Generally, electricity is cheaper when consumer demand is lowest, mainly during the night. If the facility had the ability to store energy, an intelligent switchboard could also use tariff predictions to make decisions on whether to receive energy from the grid, or wait until a lower tariff is available.

An intelligent switchboard would also complement the use of demand-side response — a system which financially rewards customers for shifting their electricity use at peak hours. Currently, demand-side response is managed by sending a signal to the customer when they need to take action. Intelligent switchboards pave the way for an automated response to this signal, which could include switching to stored energy during these peak hours.

One thing that many people don’t know about Wunderland Kalkar is that it was never fully operational as a nuclear power plant. Construction began in 1972 but delays and fierce protests from locals caused the plant to close down before it was ever finished. Today, many plant and office managers are also resistant to change, particularly with energy infrastructure such as switchboards. However, investigating the benefits of a more intelligent system and making the change could save them a small fortune in reduced energy bills, better tariffs and lack of wasted energy.

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