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