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Using IT to Enable Smart Grids in Rural Applications

Renewable energy sources such as biomass, wind and solar power can be very valuable in rural settings, granting local communities energy independence while helping them reduce their carbon footprint. However, the adoption of these sources is often compromised by power grid conditions; infrastructure upgrades can be very expensive and difficult to justify from the financial standpoint.

Information technologies are emerging as a promising and cost-effective alternative to power grid upgrades. Rather than spending funds on new transmission lines and transformers, local consumption and generation can be shaped so that the power grid tolerates the addition of renewable generation capacity and heat pumps in its current state.

Rural Heating with Biomass: Two Possible Approaches

Biomass energy sources such as wood pellet and biogas are widely available and cost-effective for heating needs in rural regions of the UK. In general, there are two approaches to follow, each with advantages and disadvantages:

  • Equipping each building with a biomass boiler

  • Building biomass power plants and using energy-efficient heat pumps in buildings

Individual Biomass Boilers

The advantage of this approach is that heat is generated at the point of use, which avoids any type of power grid investment, but there are limitations:

  • Biomass energy can only be used for heating, since there is no electricity generatio

  • Biofuels must be delivered to each property, increasing the operating cost, logistical complexity and environmental impact of this approach.

Individual biomass boilers make sense in larger buildings such as schools or government installations, but biofuel distribution can be a considerable challenge if every single home or small business has a boiler.

Biomass Power Plants and Heat Pumps for Buildings

This approach increases the load on the local power grid, but there are significant advantages:

  • Distributing electricity is faster and considerably cheaper than distributing biofuels.

  • Since biomass heat is converted to electric energy, it is no longer limited to heating applications. The power output can be used for lighting, pumping, refrigeration, etc.

However, this approach can be taxing on the power grid, even if the most efficient heat pumps are used. There are two ways to address this issue:

  • Upgrading the power grid to accommodate the new transmission and distribution load, which is simple in principle but requires a sizable investment.

  • Building a small-scale smart grid with the existing infrastructure, where generation and consumption are balanced in real time so that the transmission and distribution load never exceeds the existing capacity. This approach has a higher technical complexity, but comes at a lower cost.

How Does a Small-Scale Rural Smart Grid Operate?

Biomass generation allows rural communities to achieve energy independence, while heat pumps ensure this electricity is used in the most efficient way possible. However, two additional elements must be in place to enable a smart grid: control systems and energy storage.

Regardless of how efficient they may be, dozens of heat pumps operating simultaneously are sure to burden a rural power grid. Instead, their operation must be scheduled in terms of available power grid capacity, using thermal energy storage to shift consumption away from peak demand hours. On the generation side, biomass provides a significant advantage over solar and wind power:

  • The output of a biomass power plant is controllable, which allows energy supply to be shaped depending on demand.

  • On the other hand, solar and wind power plants are subject to variation, depending on local weather conditions. A peak in generation can overload the local power grid, potentially causing a blackout.

  • In other words, biomass generation only involves variability on the consumption side, while other renewable sources introduce variability in supply as well. With solar or wind power, energy storage on both ends would be required to control the transmission load.

Smart meters provide an excellent platform on which to deploy control systems, and fortunately there is a government program to install them on every UK household and business by 2020. Smart meters can monitor local consumption, and their output can be aggregated to manage total consumption and generation in real time.

Although many technologies can enable a smart grid, the combination of efficient heating and thermal storage offers a high potential in the UK, especially in rural zones – water and space heating are top energy expenses in most residential and commercial buildings.

Successful Application: Fintry Development Trust

A small-scale smart grid project was deployed for the village of Fintry – Smart Fintry, Stirlingshire, where LPG and oil were being used as the main heat source. The Fintry Development Trust (FDT) wanted to source energy from the Strathendrick biogas power plant, while upgrading all existing LPG and oil heaters to heat pumps with thermal energy storage.

  • Smart meters are used to monitor individual consumption

  • Data is aggregated and supplied to a control system, which manages total heating and storage capacity to prevent overloading the grid.

  • The biomass power plant must simply follow demand, which is possible with biogas.

We at Logic Energy are very thankful to Veitch Cooper to have given us the opportunity to cooperate in this project and supply the Generation monitoring equipment.

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