Illustration energy infrastructure

INFRASTRUCTURE MADE SMART

TEXT NILS WISCHMEYER
ILLUSTRATION ANDREA MANZATI

—— Regional and renewable: the energy transformation doesn’t just mean saying farewell to fossil fuels, but is also leading to more decentralized energy supplies. To ensure that the grid remains stable, electricity infrastructure needs to get smart. We explain how these smart networks work.

From centralized to decentralized

Our power grids are centrally structured. Up until now, a few large power plants with a stable base load have been feeding electricity into the grids, through which energy is often transported to distant consumers. Photovoltaic systems and wind turbines are changing this structure. Electricity production is now susceptible to greater fluctuation because sun and wind power vary with the weather—and it’s becoming more decentralized because former consumers are now increasingly also producers in this network.

Illustration detail photovoltaic system

REMOTE CONTROL

Energy suppliers and network operators are responding to the challenge by combining smaller photovoltaic and wind power plants to form larger virtual power stations. This will help mitigate periods of both overproduction and underproduction.

Illustration detail control machine

THE NETWORK: DRIVEN BY DATA

Thanks to algorithms and electronics, the centrally located computing center can now observe real-time changes in the demand for power and the feed-in on the network, and can switch the latter on or off precisely to the minute as needed. This is known as a smart grid.

Switch Detail

BASE LOAD: VIA SWITCH

The base load is the minimum demand for power on the network that must always be met. To ensure that sufficient power remains to meet this base load in the event of fluctuating feed-in from wind turbines, for example, a smart grid depends on biomass, hydropower and, for the transition period, additionally on conventional power plants and batteries. An algorithm recognizes this and switches them on when too much volatility is measured.

Illustration detail household

FOR HOUSEHOLDS: THE SMART METER

In homes and ­apartments, the change is most ­clearly seen in smart meters, which for example make remote meter reading possible. Users can then schedule certain tasks for lower-price hours, when electricity ­consumption is lower overall. This can ­include charging an electric car late at night ­instead of during the day, for instance. Along with their roles as consumers and producers, households can also store electricity in larger-scale battery systems.

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