Energy Transition

The future of energy is systemic, open and collaborative — and runs on a smart grid

Smart grids can incorporate and efficiently disperse renewable sources of energy, deploying them when and where they are needed most.

Smart grids can incorporate and efficiently disperse renewable sources of energy, deploying them when and where they are needed most. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Christoph Schell
Chief Commercial Officer, Intel
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Energy Transition

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  • Climate change and the global energy crisis intersect on our energy grids, which increasingly appear unfit for purpose.
  • Fixing our energy grid requires collaboration, and smart grids that are reactive and flexible will be key to integrating renewables effectively into our energy supply.
  • Companies like Intel are already partnering with other players in the industry and partners on the ground in the US, EU and Asia to make this a reality.

For energy access and climate change, 2022 has been a year of reckoning. These interlocking crises are impacting billions of people and the need to act is clear.

As Russia invaded Ukraine and the West barred the import of Russian oil, global electricity demand increased by 389 terawatt hours — a 3% rise compared with the first half of 2021. Energy prices worldwide are expected to increase by 50% on average by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, global temperatures continue to hit record highs, with the average temperature for January - September 2022 ranking as the sixth-warmest in 143 years.

The energy grid is where these crises meet, and the creation of a smart grid is vital in delivering energy resources in the face of supply disruptions while optimizing usage for a healthier planet.

However, converting our current energy grid structures to this new model is a complex endeavor, requiring a systemic way of thinking and an open, collaborative working model.

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From traditional to smart — rethinking the grid

Today’s energy grid structure is unsustainable. It offers limited flexibility or openness to support emerging renewable technologies.

Traditional energy grids support a one-way flow of power from centralized sources, such as coal, nuclear and gas to points of consumption — homes, businesses and data centers. When more power is needed, another centralized source of generation, a power plant, has to be built. The traditional grid cannot quickly pivot in the face of acute demand spikes or support the 100% renewable energy critical to meet global climate goals, such as President Biden’s proposal to create a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.

In a traditional energy grid, power flows from a centralized source like a power plant to points of consumption. When more power is needed, a new plant has to be built.

Traditional energy grids have worked well for decades, but climate change and energy stressors mean they need a re-think.
Traditional energy grids have worked well for decades, but climate change and energy stressors mean they need a re-think. Image: Intel

What is a smart grid?

A smart grid is a highly distributed network of clean renewable energy deployed at the edge of the existing grid.

It incorporates all distributed loads, designing them to look and act like traditional carbon-based loads. Energy flows omnidirectionally both to and from the source of generation, which renewable energy sources require, and the entire system is balanced for intermittent energy sources like solar and wind in real-time. This gives energy providers the flexibility to distribute energy where and when it is needed most, while giving customers the information needed to make environmentally conscious and cost-effective energy choices.

The smart grid integrates and manages renewable energy sources effectively using advanced technology.
The smart grid integrates and manages renewable energy sources effectively using advanced technology. Image: Intel

The smart grid requires an advanced level of computing to be deployed at the edge of the grid to manage and optimize the highly distributed intermittent loads introduced. It also requires a “total system” approach to effectively balance multiple fluctuating energy sources, consumption levels and new renewable technologies.

Taking a systemic approach to innovation is becoming common across many industries, including our own, as leaders seek to tackle complex and dynamic challenges.

Solutions must be based in software or hardware, or both, allowing businesses and providers to better understand their customers and optimize the infrastructure needed to deliver the desired outcomes.

Intel is bringing this “total system” mindset to its customers and partnerships in the energy sector — for example, by unlocking insights from smart grid data to uncover areas for improvement and optimize for energy transfer in seconds. It has invested in inverters for electric vehicles, solutions around battery and battery management and other renewable technologies. The company is also innovating up and down the supply chain, working directly with end users to make the smart grid a reality.

Collaborating for a smart grid future

According to the International Energy Agency, investment in electricity grids must average around $600 billion annually through 2030 for the global energy sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That means that innovation will take a host of public and private organizations, advancing collaboratively towards common energy goals.

In Europe, this vision is already underway. The Edge for Smart Secondary Substation Alliance (E4S) is a partnership of eight major electric utilities providers that Intel and other companies are working with to develop a smart grid.

Elsewhere, Intel is working with providers in California to transform electrical substation relays into virtualized applications, and is working with Malysia’s largest energy provider to digitalize its electric grid, with a focus on virtualized computing infrastructure and applications for the substation and grid system.

But cooperation must also be acted out within the technology sector — not just with energy suppliers. To this end, Intel and Dell are working together to develop an open, interoperable software defined solutions approach that creates a new standard for the smart grid ecosystem.

Creating open industry standards is crucial for smart grid communication, which involves interconnected devices sharing information with each other via common frameworks. Grid system operators rely on interoperable connectivity that isn’t binding their grid to one company’s solution.

Every year, more and more headlines hammer home the urgent need for efficient, sustainable and flexible energy solutions that support economic growth without harming people or the planet.

Developing a reliable and innovative smart grid is a crucial step in the journey to net-zero. Doing so is a huge undertaking, but it is possible when companies and energy providers prioritize collaboration.

Through collaboration, it is possible to build an ecosystem of renewable energy innovation that will deliver a flexible, reliable and sustainable energy future.

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