The Grid Perspective: An Interview with Wolfgang Biener

My second meeting at Fraunhofer ISE on August 12 was with Wolfgang Biener. Mr. Biener researches electrical energy systems, in particular operation and reinforcement strategies for distribution grids as well as the needs of a renewable energy system on the transmission grid.

(Note: The following interview is not a direct transcript. It is written by me, Priya Donti, and is based on notes I took during the meeting. The interviewee reviewed this writeup before its publication.)

Priya: What is your definition of Smart Grid?
Mr. Biener: I think of Smart Grids from just the grid perspective. I’d distinguish between the Smart Home and new technology for the power control of decentralized plants, control of the medium- and low-voltage grids, and transformers. I would also include anything that influences production and consumption if connected to power plants and customers, such as the market price, control of heat pumps, and shifting of energy. Therefore, I define Smart Grids as encompassing anything that affects grid operation and use. Policy also interacts strongly, in that DSOs (distribution system operators) are not able to do certain things.

Priya: What are some of these policy blocks?
Mr. Biener: The first main block is that DSOs are forced to maintain the grid for peak production and demand. For instance, imagine the DSO has to shut down production from a wind farm based on the state of the grid. Then, the DSO is obliged to reinforce the grid so it would have been able to handle that production. However, this “worst-case” grid building is expensive. Simulations by the utility EWE showed that if a utility is allowed to shut down 5% of the yearly produced power of its plants, then the grid may be able to double its connection capacities.
….A second problem is that the market price is not coupled with grid capacities. At present, you have to deal with all your producers and consumers uniformly. The problem is that you optimize a grid by telling a particular customer that they need to shut off their power, or that they should consume their energy locally for a better price because the grid can’t transport it at a particular time.
….Another problem is in the passing of data to grid operators. Smart Meters can measure voltage and producer/consumer power, but that data only gets reported to the Smart Meter Gateway administrator and not to the grid operators. Data can be passed to grid operators only under very specific conditions, such as critical grid situations, but the catch is that we can’t actually identify critical grid situations without this data. The fact is that the grid operators know nearly nothing about the state of their low-voltage grids. In grid planning, old rules are used that try to define the overall worst-case situation for the grid. Probabilistic load-flow approaches in grid planning would help to use grid capacities more efficiently.

Priya: In terms of adaptive control algorithms for distribution grid controllers, how much is “done,” and how much still needs to be done?
Mr. Biener: With the grid itself, not so much is “done” right now. Artificial intelligence could easily be used for the system if its whole state was known. But there’s lots of work to do in adaptive and agent-based control when grid state is only partly known. There’s lots of work to do when thinking about the parameterization of different controllers that are plugged into the grid, especially how existing controllers may adapt their behavior to new conditions. In terms of Smart Homes, lots of work has been done in terms of heat pumps and CHP using optimization. However, it’s still a work in progress and there’s no standard product or best solution. Load forecasting, data analytics, and weather forecasting are also all important.

Priya: Is technology or policy currently more prohibitive in achieving our vision of the Smart Grid?
Mr. Biener: We can adapt the technology we have to specific political circumstances with new objective functions, for instance, but we still have to create this technology. It’s not so much a political problem.

Priya: What would your ideal Smart Grid system look like in a developed country?
Mr. Biener: That’s a hard question to answer because existing optimization tools are not strong enough to optimize over the entire energy system, regarding asset-management and operation. As long as centralized optimization isn’t strong enough, we need a market-based system. Right now, my philosophy is that the market will find the best solution regarding grids, and everyone will participate at the market level. Everyone can optimize for energy costs and for connection capacity. We can think about how consumers and producers should participate and also give opportunities for the grid operators to participate. The design of an optimal energy system is an open research question, and that’s why it is constantly changed and differs from country to country.

Priya: How do you see us transferring some of this Smart Grid technology to developing countries?
Mr. Biener: In Germany, we’ve had to change and maintain our grid quite a bit. In the process, we’ve built up knowledge on some well-known and safe ways to operate the grid, knowledge on load and production, and knowledge on maintenance and the economic cost of outages. We can provide services to help developing countries build up a solidly dimensioned and specified grid that doesn’t need a lot of maintenance. If an existing grid in a developing country has to be adapted to current needs, intelligent technologies may help to save cost. If the grid will be newly built, I wouldn’t install much intelligent technology just yet, but instead would recommend building up a basic grid the correct way.

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Bonus: A butterfly landed on Mr. Biener’s hand as we were eating at Fraunhofer ISE’s cafeteria 🙂 Also, Mr. Biener introduced me to another researcher — Kristin Goldbach — with whom I then met the next day!

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