Energy Transition — The Need of an Autopilot System for Electric Grids

Due to increasing carbon footprint in the atmosphere and limited availability of fossil fuels, we need to rapidly move towards the heavy use of (1) clean and renewable energy sources (such as solar and wind) and (2) electric vehicles (EVs) for transportation. However, due to the inherent volatility in power production from renewables and power consumption from multi-slot EV charging stations, integrating a large number of these resources in our existing electric distribution grids may lead to the problems of line congestions and over- and under- voltage. So, the immediate challenge in front of us is to tackle these problems.

One solution to tackle the above problems is the reinforcement of electric grids. However, this is often a costly operation and should be avoided if possible. What is the alternative then? We argue for an autopilot system for electric grids. Let’s try to understand it with the analogy of car autopilot system. What does the car autopilot do? It follows a given trajectory (takes the car from point A to point B) and avoids accidents during the journey. The job of the grid autopilot system will also be exactly the same. It will steer the controllable resources of the grid (batteries, thermal resources, PV panels, etc.) to follow a given trajectory at the point of common coupling (PCC) and will avoid accidents (line congestions and over- and under- voltage) in the local grid.

In conclusion, we can avoid the costly grid reinforcement by having a grid autopilot system. Of course, to steer the grid in safe-operating conditions, the grid autopilot system needs controllable resources (energy storage solutions, thermal resources, PV plants). Therefore, before employing the grid autopilot system in a given grid, the first job is to assess the available flexibility in a given grid. If the existing controllable resources do not provide enough flexibility to the grid autopilot system, then, we need to install some additional flexible resources, e.g., in the form of a battery energy storage system (BESS).

GridSteer, an EPFL spin-off, provides such a grid autopilot system and its associated services, i.e., assessing the available flexibility in the grid and in case, it is not enough to always steer the grid in safe-operating conditions, GridSteer can size and site additional flexible resources (to be installed in the grid). At GridSteer, our vision is to help grid operators avoid the costly grid reinforcement as we dive into the new era of decentralized, intermittent, and volatile energy generation from clean and renewable energy resources.

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