The intelligent network

Shaping the energy landscape of tomorrow

All over the world, a growing proportion of our electricity is generated from renewable sources of energy. However, to be able to reliably use green energy and ease the strain on supply networks, we will need highly intelligent control systems. Researchers at Hager Group are currently working on a project alongside energy industry partners to do just that. Their goal: to draw up a blueprint for the energy networks of the future.

At Hager Group’s Blieskastel site, the computer screen in front of Dr. Norbert Schmitz is showing nothing more than impenetrable software code flickering across the screen. At this point, ‘the system’ this Hager Group researcher is working on remains a project of immense scale requiring years of development. It is already clear, however, that the project could grow into a significant hub for the energy networks of the future.

“What today’s supply networks are lacking is transparency with regard to current and future consumption” explains the computer scientist Dr. Schmitz, Advanced Digital Solution Manager in Corporate Strategy at Hager Group. “Even when it comes to electricity generation systems – wind turbines and rooftop photovoltaic systems, for example – we need more insights into how much electricity they produce right now and how much they will generate in the near future. Only then can we prevent energy networks from being overloaded as a result of highly fluctuating energy production and consumption.”

Wanted: highly flexible energy supply networks

Managing this technological balancing act is one of the main aims of the Designetz Project. Initiated by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy in January 2017, the project launched with 46 experienced partners from the energy sector, industry, research and development. One of the most significant research projects currently underway in Germany, the work is scheduled to run over a four-year period in the federal states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Saarland. The fact that Hager Group was selected as a project partner shows just how much appreciation is given to the company in the energy industry.

“This is where our expertise in building automation and smart systems truly comes to the fore,” explains Norbert Schmitz. And this expertise is certainly in demand, given that Germany is already planning to phase out nuclear energy in the coming years. By 2050, the country aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95 % and raise its share of renewable energy in gross electricity consumption to 80 %. Germany is already making good progress as it continues down this path: in October 2017, a month that was stormy and sunny in equal measure, the share of electricity derived from renewable energy sources in the country reached 44.1 %, setting a historic record. In total, environmentally friendly electricity plants produced some 20.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity in that month; enough to cover the average annual consumption of 5.9 million two-person households. Wind and solar power systems alone contributed roughly 14.6 billion kilowatt hours.

Energy supply under increasing strain

“As welcome as this development is, it also creates urgent demand for new solutions for the energy network,” explains Dr. Torsten Hager, Innovation Manager - Energy Management and Head of the Designetz Team at Hager Group. “As well as the natural fluctuation in energy production from solar and wind power, growing numbers of energy storage systems and electric cars are putting unprecedented strain on the electricity network.”

This is where the project partners come in: Norbert Schmitz and his colleagues are developing intelligent algorithms that could lead to a significant reduction in network load, improve predictability and ensure stable security of supply. To do so, they are linking millions of data points, both past and present, from which they can derive predictions about the future of energy usage and production, both for the short- and long-term. Data is collected using state-of-the-art sensors installed in the electricity network. The corresponding sensor systems are being developed by Martin Schröder, Product Manager Measurement and Communications, in collaboration with his colleagues at EFEN, a member of Hager Group.

“It’s almost as though we’re working in the engine room of the energy supply of tomorrow,” explains Norbert Schmitz, who joined Hager Group from the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence. The ingenious thing about it is that it is a self-learning system; the energy management system developed by Hager Group will develop automatically on a continuous basis. It ‘learns’ from the experience it has gathered so that, going forward, it is able to ‘know’ with more accuracy the levels of consumption and production that can be expected at a given time in a building. In turn, this intelligence is an essential prerequisite to controlling and fine-tuning both parameters in future.

How much energy will we need tomorrow? And what for?

If the weather forecast for the coming few days were to predict strong winds, for example, the system would be able to assess whether electricity consumers would be likely to use the expected additional wind power generated. Based on previous experience, it would know how much electricity is used at a particular time of the year or day. Does the predicted electricity generation correspond to the presumed rate of electricity consumption? Or are production surpluses to be expected as a result? All of these variables are continuously calculated and recalculated by the system’s artificial intelligence, allowing the energy supplier to take the necessary measures to balance the load.

In the case of production surpluses, for example – which do frequently occur – households could automatically activate high energy-consuming devices to take up the additional electricity. The excess energy could be used to charge electric cars, switch on heat pumps and load up batteries for neighbourhood or household storage devices, allowing peak production periods of environmentally friendly electricity to be used effectively. Conversely, on days with no wind and/or an overcast sky, supply shortfalls could be avoided by disconnecting equipment or postponing upcoming energy demand such as charging an electric car.

The next milestone involves developing interfaces that make it possible for all kinds of devices and equipment to be integrated into the system. “We are talking about a highly complex self-learning system,” says Norbert Schmitz, “which must also be 100 % stable in terms of its operation. The highest priorities remain network stability and security of supply.”

Prototypes are already delivering the first test results

Norbert Schmitz and his colleagues are already conducting a field test to trial the first versions of their system. Using existing consumers in the Saarlouis urban grid, they run through complex scenarios with sophisticated simulations. By doing this, they are able to utilise their experiences on their own doorstep: Hager Group’s new development and administration centre, which also houses a section of Corporate Strategy, also uses learning algorithms to maintain the balance between energy demand and electricity production. As a result, the new office building, which opened its doors in 2015, provides about 90 % of its own electricity.

The Designetz project seeks to replicate this balancing act. Eventually, all parties will benefit from the energy supply system’s new levels of flexibility: energy suppliers, whose networks will be under reduced strain; electricity consumers, whose flexibility will be rewarded with lower tariffs; the environment and climate, as the system makes it possible to make the most of climate-neutral, environmentally friendly electricity; and, not least, the economy and society in general, as the expensive coal power stations and gas power plants that currently operate to cover supply shortfalls could be shut down.

A Hager System – the next big export?

Does this all sound like a distant fantasy? In fact, it’s the next step in the transformation of our energy systems that is already taking shape in a number of markets around the world. From the one-way street of today’s energy supply networks – large power stations at one end of the pipeline and a multitude of anonymous consumers at the other – could emerge a breathing, intelligent, self-regulating organism. And Hager Group’s energy management system would be both the heart and soul of this intelligent network.

“With Designetz, we are collecting valuable contacts and experiences, as well as the key insights, that will also move us forward in our core business,” says Johannes Hauck, Corporate Business Environment & Partnerships at Hager Group, one of the project leaders. In turn, technologies developed over the course of the project will become solutions that can be deployed anywhere in the world to better manage our energy supply.

It is quite possible that the control systems developed by Hager Group could one day be used as far afield as Australia, Asia and South America. A Hager Group blueprint could see once-wasted energy put to use all over the world.

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