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Intelligent networks outsmart the spikes

Intelligent networks outsmart the spikes

Football matches can bring power networks to their knees. But the game is changing.

In England, electricity suppliers live in fear of football, but the development of intelligent networks in the power system may help them

cope.

For it is not the nation's perennially disappointing World Cup results

that keep the suppliers up at night. Instead, they fear what happens

in the middle and at the end.

Because in any match of note, at full or half time, England rises from

its collective lounge chair and puts the kettle on for a cup of tea,

instantly placing a massive extra load on power networks.

According to Britain's National Grid, the biggest football-related

power surge was in 1990, when England played its old foe from 1966,

West Germany, in a World Cup semi-final. The full-time kettle pick-up

resulted in a power demand surge of an amazing 2800MW which, says the

National Grid, was the equivalent of 1 million kettles being switched

on at once.

In kettle terms, the 2006 semi-final between England and Sweden was

something of a non-event by comparison, with a peak half-time load of

1800MW actually exceeding the full-time cuppa's 1600MW.

Yet in a world that is growing more reluctant to build power stations,

managing big spikes in demand has become a crucial issue for power

suppliers, who are struggling to avoid hugely expensive investments in

infrastructure that might be needed for only a couple of days a year.

In Queensland, for example, the increasing use of air-conditioners has

resulted in peak power demand jumping almost a quarter in the past few

years, while underlying base power consumption has grown at only 10

per cent in the same period.

The need for action on climate change has only made the balancing act

more difficult.

In Australia, as around the world, power groups are turning to what

have been termed intelligent networks to help them better manage

demand and milk more out of existing assets.

At the infrastructure end, intelligent networks aim to keep a better

eye on the functioning of the power grid, reporting faults and

problems by using the sensors now commonly built into plant equipment

used in facilities such as substations.

Last month, NSW-based electricity group Energy Australia said it would

have a carrier-grade telecommunications network connecting 200 of its

substations by the end of the year. The network will form the backbone

of the company's $40 million intelligent network initiative, which it

says will improve both the monitoring and control of the network.

Eventually up to 14,000 substations could be connected.

The new communications network will allow field staff to connect to

substations remotely using laptops, access equipment mapping systems

and take part in video conferences while out in the field.

As well as making maintenance more efficient, such initiatives help

deal with demand spikes by making sure that more of the power network

is available for use at any given time.

Other Australian groups have taken their own steps toward intelligent

networks. In July, Queensland Energy retailer Energex announced it had

upgraded its network control systems, installing technology to allow

faults to be detected more easily, part of what the company calls a

self-healing network.

Mike Swanston, group manager, customer service at Energex, tells The

Australian Financial Review that Energex's intelligent network

initiatives are an attack on three broad fronts: getting the network

to operate better, getting more utility out of it, and preparing the

network for green challenges and energy alternatives.

KPMG IT advisory director Bob Hayward says the emergence of the

intelligent power network is part of a growing trend that sees the

coming together of IT and the industry-specific operating technology

used by plant equipment.

"In business we're looking at the merger between what I call

operational technology and information technology in certain

industries," Hayward says.

"You take, for example, the electric utility industry dominated by

traditional operational technology companies. As we digitise the grid

and move towards what's called the smart grid in the next four or five

years, IT has a leading role to work with OT to create some impressive

new solutions in the smart grid and smart metering space to

dramatically reduce the emissions profile of that industry."

At the consumer end, so-called smart meters are the best known

incarnation of the intelligent network concept. In a basic form, these

allow for different pricing to be applied at different times, giving

operators a means of pushing loads away from peaks by charging more

during periods of high demand.

Provided they can communicate back to the supplier, the meters can

also be used to warn of problems on the network, or even the supply to

a particular premises. But suppliers have questioned the extent to

which smart meters and pricing can shape demand, saying that big jumps

in pricing are required to shift consumer behaviour.

Yet while many electricity groups have intelligent network programs in

train, they are also waiting for signals from the new national

regulator before committing to further use of the technology.

The new overseer, the Australian Energy Regulator, came into being in

January with powers that include control over the pricing and revenue

of electricity distribution groups.

The first big indication of the regulator's view on smart network

technologies is expected to come early next year, when the AER hands

down its ruling on $17 billion worth of infrastructure programs

proposed by NSW-based networks Energy Australia, Country Energy and

Integral Energy.

But utilities are well aware that the regulator will not approve

investment in new technology without a solid customer benefit to

underpin the business case.

As a consequence, "utilities are very reluctant to commit themselves

to what is billions of dollars unless we believe that we can

demonstrate the benefit of that clearly", Swanston says.

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