Sustainable Energy

'Self-healing' grids and the future of electrical power

Key Points
  • System slashes time needed to "re-energize" unaffected parts of grid to less than 30 seconds
  • A 'self-healing' network has been used in Rotterdam since 2012
'Self-healing' grids and the future of electrical power

We think nothing of turning on a light or charging our cell phone. These daily activities — and those of a far greater importance — rely on the smooth running of an electrical grid.

The U.S. Department of Energy has described the electrical grid as an "interconnected group of power lines and associated equipment." It is used to move electric energy at "high voltage between points of supply" and points where it is either delivered to other electric systems or "transformed to a lower voltage" and sent to consumers.

When something goes wrong, the consequences can be considerable. In July 2012, for example, "major grid disturbances" affected large parts of India, leaving hundreds of millions of people without electricity.

"Nowadays, we are more reliant on electrical power, so when an outage happens it has a big impact on our daily life," Schneider Electric's Rob de Jongh told CNBC.

The effects of an outage could impact everything from electronic banking and internet access to telephone communication and public transport, he said. "But if you look (at)… hospitals and data centers, where critical power is more important, that could be more dangerous."

At the moment, it's possible for energy suppliers to tell when there's an outage, but isolating where and what the problem is can be trickier.

"In the current situation, the control center can see where a fault is, but it needs to send a technician on site to actually find out which part of the network — if it's a switch gear or cable — has actually failed," de Jongh said.

When the technician does this, he is able to safely sectionalize the area and then try to restore power to customers as quickly as possible, de Jongh said. This, however, can take anywhere between one to four hours, depending on location and the complexity of the grid.

Major Dutch utility Stedin is based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. It serves the city's main port, a hub of activity. As such, maintaining a reliable grid is incredibly important to both Stedin and the port.

Together with Schneider Electric, Stedin has worked on the installation of an underground, "self-healing" network that was inaugurated in 2012.

Seven Easergy T200 Remote Terminal Units were installed within a 33-substation loop in Rotterdam. According to U.K. Power Networks, a substation can be used to lower electricity voltage, making it both safer and easier to send electricity to businesses and residential buildings.

"If a fault occurs, the T200 units will detect this, they will start communicating with each other," Schneider Electric's de Jongh said. "What they will do is try to locate the faults using communication diagnostics."

When this is done, the units will automatically sectionalize the faults and then, in de Jongh's words, attempt to safely "re-energize and re-connect the other grid parts so that customers get the energy back as quick as possible."

According to Schneider Electric, the impact of the system on customers is considerable. In the case of an outage that may otherwise last two hours, the system slashes the time needed to "re-energize" unaffected parts of the grid to less than 30 seconds.