It is one of the greatest balancing acts you’ll ever see: not tightrope walkers or super-flexible Olympic gymnasts but the minute-by-minute management of the National Grid. Electricity cannot be stored, so consumption must be matched by generation in almost real time.
Yet the daily ups and downs in electricity demand are difficult to predict, especially with the increasing uptake of renewable energy. Here the network supplies a constant 50Hz, but if consumer use jumps - for example during the television broadcast of the Olympic ceremonies – the network could grind to a halt if no extra generation comes on line to boost supply. Conversely, if demand dips significantly the excess power will trip the system. Either way the lights could go out if a fast solution is not in place.
Researchers at The University of Manchester are working with Electricity North West to investigate new technologies that are able to help manage fluctuations in the national supply and demand.
The Customer Load Active System Services (CLASS) project is fitting ‘smart boxes’ to local substations so that operators can monitor the network and manipulate voltages to balance the grid. These voltage adjustments are so small that consumers will not notice any changes to their supply.
“All appliances work within a standard voltage range of 216-253 volts,” explains Dr Luis Nando Ochoa from the Electrical Energy and Power Systems Group. “If operators can keep supply in the lower half of this range during times of high demand we could reduce the stress on the national system and lower the risk of blackouts.”
In addition, by lowering voltages instead of having to increase capacity, the CLASS technology will help to defer significant infrastructure investment in extra cabling and substations in the local distribution networks. As part of the CLASS trial, which is taking place across the North West of England, the researchers will monitor voltages close to individual properties. They will also talk to consumers involved in the trial to ensure that their appliances or lifestyle are not affected.
“We are confident that customers will not notice a thing,” comments Dr Ochoa. “The only real change will come in savings in the long term.” Indeed, with 26 million users, Electricity North West expects national savings from voltage reductions to reach £50 million annually.
Project name: Customer Load Active System Services (CLASS)
Principal investigator: Dr Haiyu Li
Research group: Electrical Energy and Power Systems
Funding: Electricity North West Limited (Electricity North West)
Dates: 2012 -2015