Smart grid technology driving renewable energies
“At the beginning, it was a research project but now it has become a large-scale project with interconnection between universities, researchers and economic actors. In the ENI CBC programmes one is never alone: this is the main added value of this programme.”
Dario Di Cara, Research Scientist in the Institute of Marine Engineering CNR-INM Palermo (Italy)
Solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower plants: they are the key to decarbonisation, but they pose great challenges concerning the integration and distribution through electricity networks. On sunny days, solar panels can achieve their maximum production capacity; however, if it is cloudy, this capacity is reduced, and at night electricity production drops to zero. There are times when panels, or wind generators, or hydropower plants produce more energy than needed, and others when there is no production at all.
Balancing this situation is crucial to avoid energy waste and to always dispose of the appropriate amount of energy. This is where smart grids come in, enabling the correct management of excess or under generation of power.
In a centralised grid, the flow of energy is one-way: the electricity passes from the power station towards peripheral nodes but does not travel in the other direction. This system generates waste, as the electricity produced but not consumed by final users, is simply dispersed within the network. On the contrary, a smart grid is a new, intelligent form of network. Basically, through several nodes connected one to another, the grid is able not only to gather information about the consumption, but also to process this information and to redistribute the energy between the various nodes, in case of over voltages or supply shortages. In practical terms, a smart grid is capable of automatically redistributing electricity amongst the various nodes, preventing fluctuations, power-cuts, dispersion.
Today, the expansion of renewable energies requires specific measures to achieve a smart management of resources: digital technologies are quite a boost to accelerate the transition to a greener, more sustainable economy. For example, the effort Tunisia is sustaining is to migrate networks from the one-way, centralised system, to smart grids where a real-time, reliable management can optimize production and distribution capacities. The country is working on the integration of generators and storage systems in the electricity networks, a real challenge especially in case of low and medium voltage.
And here is where the SInERT project – financed within the framework of the Italy-Tunisia ENI CBC Programme – comes in. The aim of the initiative is to develop innovative, low-cost industrial systems, both in Sicily and Tunisia, facilitating the integration of renewable energies in the Tunisian electricity network. “The Tunisian Ministry of Industry, Energy, and Renewable Energies is pushing for deployment of renewable energy solutions as part of the Tunisian solar programme – says Manel Ben Romdhane, project coordinator – and SInERT fits perfectly with this vision.”
Two pilot sites had been selected, the island of Kerkennah in Tunisia and the island of Ustica in Sicily. Due to the health and travel restrictions caused by the pandemic, the Kerkennah site has been replaced with a new one at the El Ghazela technopole, in the vicinity of the lead beneficiary, the Tunisian Sup’Com. Activities are ongoing, the identification of the algorithms to be adopted was completed, measurements and protection places have been pinpointed on the grid. Once the pilot sites performance is monitored and the effects evaluated, the partners are going to explore the replication potential at a larger scale and in other sites.
“The consortium has been extended to the private and industrial sector mainly for this purpose, – says Chiheb Rebai, researcher and member of the project steering committee – so that they can integrate the results of research and the experimentation on the pilot sites, to ensure the construction of the installations necessary for an efficient production and distribution”. The ambition is to develop the necessary sensors and tools, including intelligent control equipment, bidirectional power converters, communication systems on power lines.
The results of the research and the data collected through the smart grids will be of great use for a larger public, mainly students and researchers. The Tunisian Company of Electricity and Gas (STEG) – the main supplier in Tunisia – is also associated with the project and is providing access for the project team to the electricity infrastructure for calibration and testing of equipment. Project partners agree that there is still a lot to learn. “We are certainly focused on SInERT, but we are already looking into the future – points out Dario Di Cara, CNR Palermo. – The world of research is constantly evolving, and we should capitalise on our common knowhow to tackle new challenges, particularly hydrogen solutions.”