Smart technologies drive thinking on future energy systems

Author : Tony Milne | Business Development Manager | Advantech

03 March 2020


When it comes to renewable energy & its rapid pace of development, the need to integrate solutions from multiple vendors & technical specialists, along with a complex range of stakeholders, changes the traditional supply chain paradigm into a circular ecosystem that is technically & commercially sound.

This article was originally featured in a special supplement on Designing for energy efficiency, brought to you by EPDT & RS Components [read the digital issue].

As Tony Milne, Business Development Manager at IoT & embedded computing expert, Advantech explains, Advantech’s Co-creation strategy is a first step towards this future.

The global focus on climate change, carbon footprint reduction, pollution control and sustainability has vastly increased the use of renewable energy sources, many of which are distributed widely, and located in difficult or even inaccessible places. For example, the world’s largest offshore wind farm is currently in development at Dogger Bank, the shallows in the middle of the North Sea between England and Europe. Dogger Bank will use wind turbines that each generate 12MW of power from three 100m-long blades. Four parks, each comprising a hundred turbines, will combine for a capacity output of 4.8GW, twice as powerful as the largest nuclear power stations.

Despite the rapid advances of renewable energy platforms such as offshore wind, one of the sector’s well-documented challenges surrounds supply predictability. To help alleviate this issue, companies managing the farm and the grid connection increasingly rely on ‘Smart Grid’ technology. These companies work together to make a best prediction of future production and consumption needs, based on historical and environmental data, such as consumer meter readings, major television and sporting events, weather forecasts and similar information from other energy producers and users.

For all this to work successfully, data must be collected, stored, shared and analysed, much of it in real time. Smart meters have a useful role to play here, providing useful information about the consumption habits of customers, and the flexibility to disconnect specific users, such as heavy consumers in the aluminium or steel industry.


Another aspect in such projects is monitoring. Wind turbines, transformers and switchgear are expensive, and their correct functioning is essential for long life, safe operation and always-on capability. Vibration, rotation and exposure to the elements make for a harsh working environment, yet there are ways to keep close tabs on the operating condition of these devices. For instance, sensors can monitor temperature, vibration and power flows, with subsequent analysis of this data able to predict breakdowns. As a result, integrating such information into maintenance work orders minimises maintenance costs and the number of failures.

Although the Dogger Bank Wind Farm is headline news, much more typical of a modern electricity network is the thousands of small energy resources that now connect to the grid. These can be personal systems, solar panels on the roof of residential accommodation, or wind turbines on farms. Many shops and factories now include electricity generation as part of their facilities, to provide carbon-neutral lighting in the car park or take advantage of government tariffs, for example. In addition, hospitals maintain diesel generators or large batteries to provide back-up power in case of a blackout, and these can connect to the grid to provide additional power.

The challenges with distributed energy resources of this sort include safe connection to the grid, utilisation of power at the time it is available or required, and safe non-operation in the event that power is not required. As a consequence, the Smart Grid technologies that exist to control safe connection now require installation in thousands, even tens of thousands, of substations and power stations.

Firstly, the meters, sensors and computers – and the communication system to share the data – have to be small and powerful. Additionally, the whole system, including the software applications, communication contracts and central control applications, need to be low in cost.

If the energy producers cause headaches for the engineers designing, building and maintaining these systems, customers are responsible for the vast increase in complexity. Not so long ago, consumption patterns were simple. Individual residential and industrial customers had an address and a contract with the supplier, and problems were resolved at the flick of a switch. Today, however, the mass adoption of electrical or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, and portable electrical devices that require frequent, regular charging, has seen a massive increase in the number of anonymous electricity sockets, some of high capacity. Charging an electrical car produces a significant drain on the grid, and 100 cars connecting simultaneously can disrupt local supply.


The upshot is that even more systems are required to collect important data, analyse it, control connection and disconnection, and then communicate what is happening to a central control centre, and perhaps to other stakeholders, including the electricity supplier, the battery and car manufacturer, the charging station operator and the local town corporation.

This vast increase in sensors and meters, data collection and analysis, and communication from many thousands of sites, can only be delivered through electronic devices designed specifically for easy installation in space-limited and sometimes remote locations, usually outdoors. Such devices must be both reliable and low cost.

Although this concept presents a potential solution, other challenges emerge, including use of the Cloud. In the IT world typical of electricity supply companies, most applications, such as customer databases, accounting tools, office automation and corporate websites, run virtualised on datacentres and Cloud infrastructure. Electricity production, transmission, distribution and consumption cannot run in the Cloud, but they can use popular virtualisation technology.

Virtual machines are an established technique designed to run multiple applications via different operating systems on the same computer. Recent technologies like containers provide the same flexibility in enabling independent applications – often from different suppliers – to run alongside each other independent of computer hardware. Automation, local and wide-area communication, maintenance and even access control applications can operate on the same computer, which divides its resources according to predetermined priorities.

Simplifying and expediting these efforts, Advantech’s Co-creation strategy sets out to integrate solutions from different technology specialists, providing a solution that has been optimised for performance, reliability and cost. The company is not only working with its traditional suppliers and customers, but increasingly with partners in software, system integration, logistics and distribution, maintenance, and installation, to deliver energy systems of the future.

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