Contrary to popular belief, fossil fuels are not the remains of dead dinosaurs. In fact, most of today’s coal, oil and natural gas was formed millions of years before these prehistoric creatures ever roamed the earth. However, one energy myth that is not misunderstood is the rapid depletion of these resources. Experts estimate that fossil fuels will be completely exhausted in the next century and as a result, there is a global effort to invest in a more diverse range of energy generation techniques. However, substantial investments in smart infrastructure are required to ensure the successful implementation and longevity, of renewable technologies. This article will discuss the world’s changing energy-generation techniques and the infrastructure changes that are required to introduce renewable technology.

Investing in renewables

In Ireland, the sustainable energy economy has grown strongly in recent years. As examples, over 250,000 homes have undergone energy-efficiency upgrades since 2009, and deployment of wind energy now has Ireland placed third in the world for the proportion of wind electricity generation on the system. It is estimated that between €1.4 billion and €1.6 billion is being invested in sustainable energy technologies and services in Ireland annually, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Across the water, the United Kingdom has invested an impressive £52 billion (€59 billion) since 2010 in establishing renewable energy methods, dramatically shifting its dependence on traditional fossil fuels. On a global scale, we have also have witnessed a change in the way renewable energy is perceived in comparison to fossil fuels. In fact, wind turbines, tidal wind power and solar panels are fast becoming the energy-generation method of choice in most developed countries. While the migration from fossil fuels to renewable energy generation may seem like the obvious thing to do, making the transition is not as simple as it seems. The technology required for creating a renewable-friendly network is available, but almost all the world’s existing energy infrastructure is designed specifically to distribute the highly predictable and controllable energy generated by fossil fuels. Unlike traditional energy generation, renewable-energy sources are typically located in remote and often difficult-to-reach places. To efficiently manage and monitor these facilities, operators need to be able to connect and respond remotely. There are many different communication networks required for projects with geographical constraints, but a cloud-based application can alleviate this problem by using VPN (virtual private network) over-leased lines, ensuring that the systems are fast and responsive. Using a cloud-based process control software, operators can obtain data from these decentralised locations in real-time. This information can be accessed by engineers on their mobile phones, in real-time, enabling faster reactions to alarms, events or generation reports. Naturally, this consistent and remote plant monitoring hugely reduces maintenance and operational overheads.

Two-way communication

Traditionally, the energy grid was designed as a one-way system to transfer energy from the power station through a transmission network and eventually, to the end user – and the majority of the world continues to rely on this outdated network structure. However, the introduction of renewable energy sources adds a new layer of complexity to standard grid operations. Renewable power sources are variable by nature and, as a result, the amount of power generated by these sources cannot always be accurately predicted. In a smart grid, two-way communication should be introduced by deploying intelligent process control software. For renewable energy to be successfully fed back into the grid, the generation sources must be able to communicate with utility providers to determine whether the energy generated will fulfil the current, and future, energy requirements of the end users. This can ensure that the renewable energy that is being generated is optimised. This allows utility companies to predict and monitor the amount of energy that is being pushed back into the grid through these sources and utilise other generation sources should the demand be unfulfilled. Renewable energy is also forcing utility companies to handle the unique situation of microgeneration – with smart devices and software readily available, and affordable – homeowners are taking energy generation into their own hands by selling renewable energy back into the grid through feed-in schemes. Unlike the traditional grid, smart-grid technology provides an information channel in which energy generation data can be exchanged between utilities companies and their customers. Similarly, to the requirements of a smart factory, the smart grid requires controls, computers, automation and intelligent software to respond digitally to the country’s energy demands. To meet today’s needs, experts predict that the word’s energy industry requires a colossal investment of €11.3 trillion in smart infrastructure. However, the benefits are indisputable. Put simply, delivering electricity in a more optimal way – from source to consumption. The benefits of a smart grid are the improved efficiency and reliability of the electricity supply and, as a result, the reduction of carbon emissions. Author: Adrian Kimberley is the regional sales manager for industrial software expert, COPA-DATA