Do we need super powers to build the grid of the future?

Author: Marco C. Janssen, UTInnovation, Netherlands

To define the grid of the future, one needs to predict what the future purpose and use of the grid will be. The big question is of course, who can adequately predict the future? So far the use and future of the electricity grid has been rather predictable as the infrastructure itself was (and is...) relatively simple. I may oversimplify things, but in general we generate power at bulk power stations and through transmission and distribution networks bring the energy to the consumer. This straightforward process allows the use of a few parameters to predict the future of the power system:

  • How many consumers will be connected?
  • How much energy a consumer will need on average?
  • When will he need this energy?

However this is significantly changing now that consumers may become prosumers in large numbers.

In addition, we have politicians that want to see the development of long-term sustainable solutions. Also, the general public is being educated on energy consumption and environmental issues resulting in a wish to have more control over our consumption. Then there is the investment in automation so that it takes over the control of energy systems.

Finally, there is the impact of the distributed generations causing energy flows to become much more unpredictable.
So the simple question that is however difficult to answer is:

How to predict the future purpose and use of the grid?
If this question is so difficult to answer should we even ask? However, not asking the question could lead to a standstill in which we do not develop anything anymore. And if we do not create a vision of the future purpose and use of the grid, how are we going to determine what we need to build and when to build it?

Thus, it seems that we are stuck with an unsolvable problem..., but are we really?

If we look around, we see projects to define and build the grid of the future popping up like mushrooms. The basis for these projects seems to be taking the original criteria for the development of the grid, extrapolating the existing and well-known parameters on our views of what the future could look like with the objective to create strategies, implementation and investment plans and the aforementioned (pilot) projects.

One can of course argue whether this is the correct and/or only approach. Especially considering that given the uncertainties mentioned earlier it almost seems as if it requires superpowers to predict the future and to ensure that our envision is correct and thus, that our investments are the right ones.

That may be the case, but I think that the situation is actually not as bad as it seems. History shows that it requires visionaries to provoke innovation and stimulate developments, and that even if a vision is wrong, a very large part of the innovations and developments triggered by it are usable in one way or another. In many cases these innovations themselves trigger the creation of new ideas.

It is the visions that normally create businesses and make the money flow. As this is essential for economies to grow and given the economic crisis we are going through, one can argue that this is even more important today. So even if the future is unpredictable and visions may be wrong, it is still better to have a wrong vision rather than none at all. It is better to try and fail than not to try at all.

So to all the visionaries I say, please continue developing your visions.

To the politicians I say, please continue to create an environment in which money will be spent on the creation of solutions to reach these visions.
And finally to the engineers I say, enjoy! It is fun to work towards something new even if you do not know for sure whether the result in the end will make sense or not...


Marco C. Janssen graduated the Polytechnic in Arnhem, The Netherlands. He developed further his professional skills through programs and training courses. Marco is President and Chief Commercial Officer of UTInnovation LLC, a company providing consulting & training services in the areas of protection, control, substation automation and data acquisition, and support on the new international standard IEC 61850, advanced metering and power quality. He is a member of WG 10, 17, 18, & 19 of IEC TC57, the IEEE-PES and UCA International Users group.

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