INTERVIEW: Schneider Electric’s Frédéric Godemel on the ‘grid of the future’

Schneider Electric’s Frédéric Godemel says the ‘grid of the future’ is really the ‘grid for the future’

Schneider Electric is a technology supplier to businesses and to the electricity industry, with interests from process and building control to grid management. It is bringing these technologies together as the ‘grid of the future’ but for Frederic Godemel, executive vice president in the Power Systems and Services division, the future is already here.
He says, “What we call the grid of the future is basically a grid in which you integrate a high dose of renewables in order to produce electricity that is decarbonised. It has a mix of centralised generation and decentralised generation and it calls on the demand-side.”
He adds, “Wind and solar are by nature variable and in order to manage that you need to use digital capability to balance demand and supply. This is what we have called the grid of the future.” He highlights solar and wind as key technologies but adds, “we are seeing major deployment of storage, which can play a role in flexibility”.
In practice, the mix between centralised and distributed generation, and between various types of renewables, changes by country depending on their natural resources. Some have a huge resource to call on: “Countries like Canada and Brazil would use all hydro, because they have an incredible amount. If you go to France people will tell you they can do all that with nuclear and in some other places it will be with new forms of electricity.” But he also expects mixed installations to be built, like wind with storage, because “that can become almost a permanent source of stable and centralised energy. We see this type of project already.” He says there will still be a ‘baseload’ requirement, but the grid will also be required to supply electricity to larger intermittent users, like EV owners charging.
That requires more flexibility to balance supply with demand and fundamental to this will be “active customers – what we call ‘prosumers’ who are producing and consuming. They are an essential part of this active grid. For example delaying charging a car for 15 minutes may not be a problem, and [other types of demand] can be offloaded for periods from 10 minutes to hours.”
He says there are already examples in the UK, Germany and France where people have been asked to turn off appliances for a short period. So far, “This has been done through social media and not really in an automated way. In the UK there has been successful use of flexibility services. But what has happened has been that in a year of tension, government was afraid of power cuts, so they asked people to act. This is not the way we conceive the grid of the future.” He says most will be automated: “Once a user sets up their installation they will decide which are the priority loads and the non-priority loads. When the grids are stressed those non-priority loads are offloaded and when the grid is stable and perhaps there is abundant wind or solar then the automation can turn on the load. Eventually the consumer will receive a better price for doing so.”
Godemel says this will apply both to individuals and large and small organisations. “Over time those people for various reasons will move more and more of their loads to electrical loads. They may want to … progressively replace fossil fuel burning processes with electrical processes. By doing so they will probably generate a higher level of consumption from the grid and probably as well some local generation. They will be large prosumers and those people will play a major role in balancing the grid of tomorrow, because they can be the one where the potential offloading on a single site is big.
“On the other hand they can be the one who creates local energy generation. At a regional level at those sites can play a key role.”
Eventually that will be attractive for businesses that are managing volatile energy prices but Godemel fears that at the same time uncertainty over prices may mean businesses are cautious about active participation, fearing it is not likely to give them enough return. For those cautious companies, he has another argument: “what is key in Europe now is energy security. You start to have companies that are simply afraid that they will not be able to consume and then energy security plays very differently into the criteria of decision-making. You are not so interested on the return on investment – you are simply protecting your operation.”
He says the potential for local renewables is underexploited in Europe and customers of all sizes should grasp the opportunity. Although he refers to the ‘grid of the future’ in practice it is here now: “we are speaking about a mature technology with a return on investment that is between five and 10 years”. What is needed on the utility side is a digital interface that allows the utility to read the user’s data and act on it. Such an interface can combine with automated management set up to ensure the customer always has the power to do as they wish, while working with the grid operator to flex at times when both will benefit.
Schneider Electric is taking its own advice and building it into its own new office, where “with state of the art technology our return on investment on the energy bill is below five