Smart grid: the local level is the key to success

24 October 2018ContactNicolas Laruelle, Daniel Thépin, Erwan Cordeau

The smart grids revolution affects extra high voltage networks as much as neighborhood or building networks. This is typical of the changes of model in the management of urban services made possible by digital technology. In the Paris Region, the first local developments foreshadow the solutions that could be more generally applied to the existing urban fabric.

Although digital technology has helped to unbalance electricity consumption (new uses, vehicle electrification, widespread introduction of data centers), it has also transformed grids, which have become smarter, but without freeing themselves from major structural constraints. Thus, despite undeniable progress, the possibilities for electricity storage remain limited overall. It is therefore necessary to ensure at all times a balance between electricity generated and electricity consumed, at the risk of producing excessive variations in voltage and frequency with adverse effects on infrastructures and devices. The growing integration of very fluctuating renewable sources of energy (wind, photovoltaic, etc.) combined with the development of very variable modes of consumption make such permanent balancing more and more difficult. Second constraint: the transmission and distribution of electricity cause significant “grid losses”, i.e. 2% of electrical energy transmitted by the high/very high-voltage grid and 6% of electrical energy transmitted by the low/medium-voltage grid dissipated as heat – the “Joule effect”. Given that renewable energy generation sources are more and more decentralized (Enedis, the distribution affiliate of the EDF electricity company, has a network of over 350,000 generation sites), the “re-centralization” of generation at national or even regional level offers little benefit. True, it will still be necessary “to follow the load curve”, i.e. to compensate for possible local load imbalances by using more centralized generation sources. However, to be efficient, permanent balancing between generation and consumption must be done locally. This is what is at stake in neighborhood smart grids.

Smartness can now be everywhere

Today, multiple digital innovations allow electrical grids to be made “smarter” at all levels, from continents to local buildings: smart meters measure consumption in real time; algorithms and supercomputers allow production and consumption peaks to be anticipated; and close decentralized partnerships are formed with the producers and consumers who accept to contribute to grid balancing. For example, if there is a cold snap, extra generation sources are immediately mobilized, while at the same time some individuals and companies automatically renounce part of their non-essential consumption against remuneration, as though they themselves were electricity producers. All these solutions exist and have already been technically validated and gradually implemented in the transmission and distribution grids. Little by little, they are being introduced into buildings. Henceforth, experimental solutions at neighborhood level must be validated to take full advantage of the efficiency gains to be obtained from smart grids.

To be effective, the permanent balancing between production and consumption must be achieved locally

Local smart grids: an approach that remains experimental

At local level, smart grids are being implemented within a very rich ecosystem, bringing together large national corporations, start-ups, research laboratories, etc. In cooperation with public and private sector planners, these players naturally use the preferred environment of eco-neighborhoods to develop local smart grids and turn them into laboratories and/or demonstrators for their latest innovations: IssyGrid in Issy-les-Moulineaux (a southwestern suburb of Paris) is the first operational example; other projects are emerging, such as CoRDEES in Paris, and others in the suburbs of Paris such as Descartes Grid in Champs-sur-Marne, LiveGrid in Palaiseau or Smart Hoche in Nanterre. Although promising, these initial developments, to a large extent, are still at an experimental stage and focus on new neighborhoods. Before they can be spread to older existing areas, numerous issues remain to be addressed. Operators do not yet have complete control over the processes. The massive scale, complexity and inadequate interoperability of these processes limits the size of current operations. At the other end of the chain, potential users are sometimes reticent and even opposed to any change in the contractual consumer/supplier relationship, which may, for example, give the supplier the right to moderate consumers’ use of an equipment. Another brake is the difficulty of collecting accurate data on consumption within a household, as some consumers consider that such data concern their private life. From an economic point of view, the sector remains a niche market whose profitability prospects are uncertain and hardly favorable to massive investments. Thus, the take-off of local smart grids remains subject to the emergence of a stabilized and inclusive model that can be easily replicated by all those involved in the value chain, notably the planners and local elected officials. This is the condition on which smart grids will truly realize their full potential. 

Nicolas Laruelle, urbanist and Daniel Thépin, economist, with the support of Erwan Cordeau, environmentalist, IAU îdF

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