Making the energy system smart
In October 2022, the European Union (EU) adopted its action plan to digitalise the energy system for a more efficient, sustainable, secure and competitive energy market.
Making its goals a reality requires the use of new digital technologies to make every process smarter — from generation to usage. Here, Richard Mount, Director of Sales at ASIC design and supply company Swindon Silicon Systems, explains the technology required to make energy systems smart.
One of the key actions outlined in the EU's plan is to help consumers gain more control over their energy usage and bills. To do this, the EU plans to encourage the adoption of smart digital solutions to provide information to consumers to enable them to reduce their consumption or use energy in a more cost-effective way. But it's not just about cost.
The plan also seeks to boost the proportion of renewable energy for a more sustainable, and resilient, energy market. So, what technology is required to achieve these goals?
The answer lies in Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Digital tools are already used in many aspects of the energy industry — from smart sensors that generate data to enable remote control of solar photovoltaic (PV) farms to smart thermostats that adapt energy usage to meet a predefined ambient temperature in homes. But the potential of digital tools is much more than their current applications.
It's all well and good having these digital technologies in place, but currently some operate in silo. An interconnected system is the key to enabling maximum efficiency. To do this, the EU has decided to make a digital twin of its nations’ entire energy system, which acts as a virtual model of the physical grid. With sensors placed across every layer, it won't just be possible to collect data, but also use it to make data-informed decisions.
This is particularly valuable in the increasingly renewable system, as energy production relies on weather conditions. Sharing data across the entire energy value chain can be linked with weather models that predict how much renewable energy can be produced, whether it is enough to meet demand or is surplus to requirements.
But to ensure this data collection, there needs to be a digital electricity infrastructure in place with the technology required to generate data. The electricity grid needs to be able to interact with the devices on its network to bring in data from every source. This lies in the use of smart sensors to convert analogue data about the environment — on a smart grid this is typically monitoring bidirectional flows of energy to confirm status and determine usage.
With clear insights at hand into how much energy is being used, where it's being used and for what, the data can be run through AI algorithms. This enables the development of historic trends and the ability to identify areas where consumption is high, areas where supply doesn't meet demand, and any other trends that can reveal areas where the network could run more efficiently.
To make sure the signal is in a format that can be received by the system, it needs to be conditioned and digitalised through the use of integrated circuits (ICs). While off-the-shelf ICs do exist, a superior, optimised alternative is an application specific IC or ASIC.
An ASIC is a custom device designed specifically for an application, where the ASIC design team invests in the performance of the chip to ensure it is specifically suited to its particular application. As an ASIC design and supply leader, Swindon is able to optimise the entire signal path down to the finest detail, removing unnecessary features and integrating as much of the optimised circuitry into a single package as possible.
With the reduced component count comes higher reliability, reduced power consumption and greater protection from the environment. In applications like smart grids, where ASICs are deployed to remote locations, this environmental protection is of the utmost importance.
A smart grid is designed to last, so its components must last too. If opting for off-the-shelf ICs, obsolescence is a concern as their manufacture will inevitably cease. However, ASICs are designed with non-obsolescence in mind. ASIC design companies such as Swindon will usually guarantee that the device will be available until the customer halts its production, to overcome obsolescence.
With energy costs mounting and sustainability importance growing, it's absolutely vital for initiatives like the EU’s digital energy system to succeed. Selecting components that provide the longevity and performance to ensure the system’s functions is key to long-term success.