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The energy system of the future is digital, decentralized and self

Aug 30, 2023Aug 30, 2023

Sustainability - Five Dutch universities and the Center for Mathematics & Computer Science (CWI) join forces to make our energy system future proof.

The Netherlands faces the enormous task to let the country run entirely on green energy in the future. This will require a radically new, flexible and reliable energy system. Five Dutch universities, together with research institute CWI, are now working on a proposal to make this happen. "We can't wait anymore. Let's make our energy system ready for the next hundred years," says Peter Palensky, Professor of Intelligent Electrical Power Grids at TU Delft.

To put it bluntly: time is running out. The electricity grid in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe needs a major overhaul, and quickly. Electricity demand will almost double by 2030 compared to 2019. Not only must the generation capacity be significantly increased. Getting large volumes of green electricity to the right place in a reliable way is also a major challenge. It needs to be stored as well.

Recently TenneT made a first attempt to map the grid of the future and handed the Target Grid proposal to Minister of Climate and Energy, Rob Jetten. A grid for fully sustainably generated energy is proposed with energy hubs connected by so-called ‘superhighways’. "A great first step," says Palensky. "But the plan needs to be refined."

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That is why five Dutch universities (TU Delft, TU Eindhoven, University of Twente, University of Groningen and University of Utrecht) and CWI decided to submit a proposal called Digital Energy for the Gravitation Programme 2023. With the program, the government supports research by consortia of researchers in the Netherlands with an amount of 25 million euros. As the name implies, the digitization of the power grid is central to the proposal. The future grid will be a decentralized electricity system, in which energy hubs are interconnected by superhighways by means of all different kinds of technologies.

First of all, Palensky is building a digital twin to study the future grid in detail. "It is a numerical replica of something new. In our case, the future power system," Palensky explains. "In this way, you can test scenarios and do experiments without hurting anyone in the real world."

Many questions remain unanswered when it comes to the grid of the future. Questions like: How do we keep everything stable when millions of solar panels will soon be installed? And how do we ensure that everyone will be able to charge their electric cars? "The magical thing about the digital twin is that it brings people together. Technology providers, electricity companies, politicians: they can all take a seat at the table and see for themselves what happens in scenario X. In this way, we can make decisions faster and better and reach our target goals in time. And we can do this for other countries as well."

With the digital twin, one of the main things being researched is the efficient distribution of energy. In the current energy system, if one element fails or is damaged, it affects the entire system, similar to a domino effect, sometimes resulting in blackouts of entire regions. "We don't want this to happen in the future. This is why we propose a system that is distributed, self-organized and resilient," said Pavol Bauer, professor in DC Systems, Energy Conversion and Storage of TU Delft's Department of Electrical Renewable Energy.

This will be possible through so-called interconnected ‘energy cells’ in which peer-to-peer trading is possible. "Within the cells, energy is shared and distributed among users. Citizens generate energy with solar panels on the roofs of their buildings. And if there is high demand for energy, for example if the washing machine and dishwasher are used at the same time, it is possible to get this energy from neighbours. So basically we are trying to maximize the profit and balance the energy in a cell."

Energy will be stored both globally and locally. And the exchange of energy becomes very flexible. This is an advantage, for instance, for energy hubs with high-demand users. "Think of industry and electric trucks that need charging. Here more energy use is expected so there will be more energy available coming from the grid. All the energy hubs are interconnected."

Digitization and intelligent components that are part of the grid are key in keeping this new system running well. These provide improved reliability, flexibility and efficiency. "For instance, the components can contribute to predictive maintenance with self-diagnostics", Bauer continues. "They notify the user if a switch is working properly. You can compare it to a car inspection at the garage. They connect the car to a computer and can read out if there are any possible malfunctions."

Furthermore, power electronics, the branch of electrical engineering that deals with the processing of high voltages, is going to play a major role in the new system. "Power electronics technology will provide a crucial, flexible and intelligent interface to connect renewable energy (wind, solar), storage and loads and will control the power flow", Bauer explains. It will replace some of the classical grid components. Bauer continues: "For example, a classical grid frequency transformer (50Hz) will be replaced by a solid state transformer (SST). As a result the transformer can use a high frequency switching, reducing both the size and weight with regard to grid frequency transformers, and will manage the power flow between the feeders and the grid. And, as a positive side effect, it will only need a fraction of copper and steel compared to low frequency transformers and thereby saving raw material."

"And these are just a few examples. This is really a monster-sized toolkit," Bauer concludes. Even futuristic technologies that are hard to imagine at this point in time, like the wireless transmission of energy (Inductive Power Transfer) are described in the proposal.

The beauty of the proposed concept, according to Palensky, is that it is in harmony with our current energy system. "We just can't turn it off for a year to implement a new one. We have to do pacemaker surgery on the fly during the marathon, so to say. But it is perfectly possible. Our solution is economical, reliable and over time it will grow and complement existing structures."

In October it will become clear whether Digital Energy will be eligible for funding. Bauer and Palensky are hopeful. "Now is the time to make a change. We simply can't wait any longer. And if we change our energy system, let's get it right for the next 100 years. With all the great tools described in our proposal, I’m confident we can make it happen," Palensky concludes.

"And it really is a unique opportunity for the Netherlands and Europe to become energy leaders again," Bauer adds. "Let's get started right away."

Sustainability - Digital Energy: A monster-sized toolkit A digital twin Energy cells Intelligent components Power electronics A pacemaker operation ‘We cannot wait anymore’