In this article, Gerd Kjølle writes that a worldwide search is now underway to find smart solutions that will lead to a more digitalised and flexible electricity grid system. “SINTEF’s research centre has developed several such solutions, but we haven’t got to the finish line yet”, she says. Stock photo: iStock

In search of a smarter grid

The Norwegian government is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 per cent by 2030. This will involve dramatic changes to the electricity grid system.

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity is the restructuring of the global energy system – the world’s biggest and most complex machine.

The Norwegian government has stated its commitment to a target of reducing emissions by 55 per cent by 2030. To achieve this, we have to implement the electrification of Norwegian society using green energy. This energy must be generated at a reasonable cost, and the infrastructure needed must give due consideration to Norwegian nature. In addition, we must safeguard high levels of supply security. A ‘fully electrified’ society demands that we have in place a distribution grid that is both smarter and more flexible than our current system.

Secure supplies for a green transition

We are well on the way to the full electrification of Norwegian society, but our growing use of electricity places increasing stress on the distribution grid. If we fail to take steps to safeguard supply security, these stresses will make the system vulnerable to future blackouts. 

In Norway, we currently enjoy high levels of supply security with a grid uptime of 99.98 per cent. This means that on average, we experience blackouts for no more than two to three hours per year.

One aspect of safeguarding supply security is to ensure that there is sufficient capacity in the distribution system to meet the electricity needs of consumers at all times. In other words, to supply the volume of ‘work’ that consumers extract from the system at any given moment. But if everyone decides to charge their electric cars, cook their dinners and heat their houses at the same time, the capacity of the grid becomes stretched.

Both the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) and system operator Statnett have drawn attention to issues related to electrical power balance in Scandinavia, and to the likelihood that we can expect power shortages in Norway in the years leading up to 2030.

Impact on supply security

The entire electrical power system is in a state of change. The needs of consumers are changing, their demands increasing, and a greater proportion of solar and wind power is entering the system. Naturally, this imposes new forms of stress on the distribution grid,  although we currently know too little about how this will affect supply security.

In many places grid capacity is being exceeded, causing local operators to refuse supplies to existing businesses that want to expand, and new companies looking to establish themselves. This can be disappointing for local communities that miss out on opportunities for job creation and wealth generation.

The distribution grid can of course be expanded, and such projects are underway in many places. But the construction of new grids is expensive and takes a long time.

Grid capacity is not the only factor threatening supply security. We also have to address the impacts of climate change.

It will be the ‘new’ weather patterns that determine exactly when solar and wind power sources can be utilised. A wetter, warmer and wilder climate will also give rise to new and extraordinary weather events. Not to mention the more recent threats to the power system in the form of cyberattacks.

The grid must be digitalised

History is thus unable to continue to provide us with answers about what we can expect in terms of risk. We have to think innovatively about how we can build resilience into the Norwegian power system, and in so doing safeguard supply security.

We can no longer take it for granted that we will always have electricity on tap when we need it, or that our industries will be able to maintain current production rates – at least, not without obtaining more knowledge about how the grid can be made more flexible. If we really want to maintain adequate supply security, it is essential to digitalise the power system.

Digitalisation can be implemented with the use of sensors and metering systems that offer us better opportunities to guarantee greater operational security by means of monitoring and control of the distribution grid. In a pilot project being conducted at CINELDI, which is one of Norway’s national research centres for environmentally-friendly energy, SINTEF is using a sensor developed by the Norwegian company Heimdall Power. The sensor is designed to show us how much free capacity is available within the grid at any one time, and provides important information on which to base the planning of a future in which flexibility is key to both the production and consumption of electricity.

Supply security is key

We have to identify effective ways of ensuring that electricity consumption by households and businesses can easily and automatically be better apportioned throughout the 24-hour day. This will enable us to optimise our use of the grid and thus avoid the construction of new masts and cables in many areas This will result in major cost savings for society as a whole.

A worldwide search is now underway to find smart solutions that will lead to a more digitalised and flexible grid system. At SINTEF, our research centre has developed several such solutions, but we haven’t got to the finish line yet.

Research centres, the electricity industry and politicians should be joining forces to work intensively to achieve our climate change mitigation targets, while at the same time ensuring secure electricity supplies for all. In the last year, climate change, the destruction of nature and electricity prices have all been much in the news. But supply security, which is threatened by capacity problems, climate change and the risk of cyberattacks, is a prerequisite for our ability to achieve the green transition. Our electricity distribution grid represents the backbone of the infrastructure we depend on to carry renewable energy from its producers to the consumer.

This article was first published in the daily newspaper Dagsavisen on 25 November 2022.