How can European electricity networks ease the distribution bottleneck?

A key issue to be resolved in the GB market is whether and how to balance supply and demand. What should  be at  transmission level and what at  distribution level?. Similar questions are being asked across Europe, as Janet Wood found

What is the future for distribution networks in Europe’s Energy Union? This is a key question for the development of distributed generation and balancing the system.

It’s a question that Jochen Kreusel, head of ABB’s Smart Grids Industry Sector Initiative, is working on. He says those networks face fundamental change and that is because of the advent of large-scale rooftop photovoltaics (PV). In contrast to rooftop solar, he says, “wind generation is more of a traditional problem. It’s big players, central control and big components”. But PV is now a consumer interest and it is “the real game-changer, because there are orders of magnitude more entities involved. Once the framework was set and it was economically attractive, people ran to take advantage of it.”

PV is now a consumer interest and that is the real game-changer, because there are orders of magnitude more entities involved.

Kreusel also compares the change with an earlier change, when the industry was liberalised. “That’s a man-made issue, you could legislate and delay renewable energy deployment – that’s also man-made. [But with consumer-led PV] it’s a technical issue, it’s more pressing every day and you can’t negotiate [a delay]. We have to do it or the system will collapse.
“In Germany, for example, there are maybe 20,000 windfarms run by utility entities. But there are 1.5 million solar installations. PV has to be controlled locally and it has to be co-ordinated.”

It raises some immediate issues for managing local grids. “We need a solution for voltage control. If you add rooftop solar connected at the low-voltage level, sooner or later you are going to need to control voltage dynamically. Voltage variations are much bigger. This is more and more a critical issue.”
That means adding visibility and active management to distribution grids. At the moment, “95% of the [distribution] grid is blind”. Before that can happen, the industry must consider, “what functionality do you need at secondary substations at medium to low voltage?”
Kreusel adds that, “as a supplier, we’d like [the framework/solution] to be consistent from country to country. We’d appreciate having the same standards and that would make it cheaper, too”.

Distribution/transmission interface

The fundamental question that countries across the EU are grappling with is how distribution networks and transmission networks should work together.
Kreusel says previously, “real-time load balancing was exclusively carried out by transmission system operators [TSOs]. DNOs [distribution network operators] occasionally were required to reconfigure their networks, but that did not happen in real time.
“That’s got to change. But the division of roles has not been defined, and until that definition is known, there is no point talking about technical issues.”
Kreusel says this issue is the bottleneck in developing distributed generation. It is on the agenda in Brussels: speaking at European Utility Week, Oliver Koch, deputy head of unit at the European ­Commission’s Energy Directorate-General, said “a ­previous life was based on TSOs balancing the system and passing on information to DSOs  [distribution system operators]. That has totally changed”.

“a ­previous life was based on TSOs balancing the system and passing on information to DSOs  [distribution system operators]. That has totally changed”.

But Kreusel says the problem is that in TSO and DNO discussions, the two are coming from ­“different worlds”.
Walter Boltz, chief executive of Austrian regulator E-Control, had a similar opinion. He told European Utility Week delegates: “We won’t be able to rely on bulk and industrial generators to balance. And it’s not so easy to call 300,000 solar users and ask them to shade their panels. We need to harmonise [distribution and transmission] roles and responsibilities, at least regionally if not EU-wide.”
Who can produce that consistent solution? Kreusel identifies an institutional problem. “Entso-E focuses on the transmission networks. There is no comparable institution for distribution networks,” not least because there are thousands of them and some are tiny, with just a few thousand customers.

Four associations have some interest – Eurelectric, EDSO for smart grids, Geode and Cedec. Kreusel says these “are purely political and they are dealing with an extremely fragmented industry. Entso-E on the other hand has very strong technical and operational branches too”.
But the four organisations do bite back: in November, they sent a joint letter to Entso-E complaining that its governance process was lacking. They said Entso-E had taken four months longer than the DSO organisations to approve general guidelines on co-operation. And Entso-E had proposed amendments during that approval process, an option that was not open to the other organisations.
Kreusel says that some DNOs are tiny, with “very, very different levels of professionalism. Who do they hire? They may only have one or two roles so they hire technicians. But [at this point] they need to dedicate some people to just talking about what the future will look like”.
He says he expects “a certain amount of consolidation” among them and Boltz agreed, saying: “If you have hundreds and thousands of DNOs they will never be able to operate aggregation properly. It needs commercial entities.”

“If you have hundreds and thousands of DNOs they will never be able to operate aggregation properly. It needs commercial entities”

Kreusel says he thinks the UK may have an important role in this discussion because it has few, large DNOs who can sit at the table on equal terms with TSOs.
One thing seems clear, however: European distribution networks that also provide domestic supply are unlikely to become pure network operators on the UK model. Koch said “the European Commission has no sympathy with starting another unbundling ­discussion” at distribution level.

First published in the December 2015 issue of New Power. Not a subscriber? Contact subscriptions@newpower.info for details

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