Power: a sector in transformation
Recent developments in the world’s electricity system bring new and fundamental changes
Electricity is all around us. Whether we are at home or in the workplace, in a busy metropolis or in a remote outpost, electricity, whether directly or indirectly, enables almost everything we do. Electricity is in many respects an ideal means of transmitting and delivering energy, being controllable, safe, economic, efficient and relatively unobtrusive.
Electricity has in little more than a century become the most important enabler of human activity and business. Without it there would be no secure supply of clean water or food. There would be no information technology. Productivity would be inadequate to meet the basic necessities of the planet’s population.
The ongoing growth in importance and scope of the electrical grid has been accompanied (and enabled) by the development of the systems that assure its continuity and reliability. Despite fundamental transformations along the journey from early island networks to the continent-wide synchronized three-phase AC grids that emerged in the second half of the 20th century, the basic principles underlying these systems remained largely unchanged. However, recent developments are bringing new and fundamental changes to the entire electricity system on a scale not seen since its inception.
Traditionally, a small number of centralized power plants supplied the surrounding centers of consumption. Generation was dictated by demand levels and electricity flowed essentially in one direction. Today, we are seeing a rapid growth in renewables such as wind and solar, which are by nature subject to supply fluctuations. Furthermore this generation (as well as storage) is distributed over a myriad of locations with longer transmission distance and often integrated in consumer sites. A given site can thus arbitrarily change from being a net consumer to a net producer and the traditional model of one-way electricity flows is giving way to multi-directional flows. This is not only affecting the hardware of the transmission infrastructure but also the way it is operated. A balancing of generation and consumption can no longer rely purely on supply strictly following demand, but must be able to anticipate and react to a fluctuating demand. This requires sophisticated monitoring, communication and control systems across generation, transmission, distribution, storage and consumption.
Emerging power systems are becoming increasingly flexible and interconnected, as well as more reliable and intelligent. We are also seeing the development of ultra-high-voltage AC and DC transmission, more eco-efficient and resilient products, power quality and grid stabilization technologies, service and asset health management solutions as well as emerging innovations like energy storage and micro grids.
Global super grids, grid digitalization, energy storage and evolving business models are part of the future of power. Emerging technologies will ensure that we meet the four major electricity requirements of our global society: capacity, reliability, efficiency and sustainability.