The Island Energy Challenge

Renewables and smart technologies offer a cost effective approach to remote electrification.
Published: Mon 15 Feb 2016

The time has come for renewables and smart technologies to help islands  and other remote environments effectively and efficiently access electricity.

The challenges of electrification in remote locations are well known. Often mountainous or lacking ready access to electricity and subject to extreme weather events, there are obvious technology demands in meeting universal access and ensuring reliability and continuity of supply. But perhaps the most significant is that typically diesel generation is used, relying on costly and price varying diesel imports and high electricity costs for often a relatively small population.   

“With the new technologies we see a real opportunity. Just as cellular demand outstripped landline telephony in the late 1990s and early 2000s because it was too expensive to run copper wires, the challenge for remote areas is getting power to them cost-effectively. We will see the utility industry leapfrogging to renewables and other emerging smart technologies to serve customers in remote and developing areas of the world,” Paul Nelsen, Itron’s senior director of smart grid solutions for the Asia-Pacific region, told Engerati in an exclusive interview.

“The costs of solar and storage are dropping and perhaps more importantly we now have the enabling technologies to create remote grids or microgrids that can operate autonomously when necessary.”

The grid challenge

While renewables and other new technologies solve the problem of power availability, these technologies themselves present other challenges to running a stable electrical system. The most obvious with solar and wind is their unpredictability and intermittency, which impacts maintaining the frequency and stability of the network. As it is, small networks are relatively fragile by virtue of their size, lacking the capacitance and response capabilities of a larger network. Network stability is further challenged with the potential for even a single large load to have a significant impact on a small generation base.

“This is where the smart grid comes in,” says Nelsen. “Smart grid technology provides the monitoring and information that is critical to running the system while also providing the additional control capabilities to enable autonomous operation in the event of communications interruption.”

Itron’s solution for such applications is the OpenWay Riva™ platform, which enables distributed intelligence and combines RF, PLC and WiFi to optimize communication with Edge Intelligence capability to enable local analysis and decision making.. [Engerati-The Grid Edge – New Utility Opportunities] “With this combination we are enabling various smart grid applications, such as renewables integration, voltage monitoring and outage management, for example.”

Smart grid business case

As with any new technology or system, a business case is fundamental to the deployment of a smart grid within an island or remote environment, and especially if external funding is to be sought.

Typically, smart meters have constituted the primary driver of smart grids but this is now changing, says Nelsen.

“Utilities are increasingly interested in making technology investments which provide benefits that far outweigh their investment. Traditional smart metering gives some insight into customer behaviour and enables new rates, but embedded generation creates a requirement for more insight into power flows on the low voltage network. With distributed intelligence, utilities not only gain better insights to make decisions but also intelligence and control capabilities to take action at the edge. That’s how you drive real distribution benefits from smart metering solutions, and that’s where we are with OpenWay Riva.”

In addition, smart metering with distributed intelligence offer a cost-effective alternative to SCADA investment, which can be cost-prohibitive for most low voltage applications.

“Working with the utility, we can develop a solid business case based on their current challenges and strategic direction. The key is to look at opportunities to use that investment to drive benefits for the whole grid,” says Nelsen. “In remote areas, the benefits run the gamut from traditional smart metering business drivers like new rates, such as prepay or time-of-use, and deferred capital from peak shaving. But increasingly, utilities are focused on solving specific problems like credit management, solar integration, outage response and disconnection management.”

OpenWay Riva in Tonga

The first island deployment of OpenWay Riva, which was announced last August, is at Tonga Power Limited (TPL). The solution is comprised of OpenWay Riva smart meters, Cisco Connected Grid Routers as well as back-office data collection software. It will be deployed over 5 years to more than 20,000 TPL customers on Tonga's main island of Tongatapu in the South Pacific.

Nelsen says that the solution is driven by two primary objectives of TPL – to produce approximately half of its generation from renewables and to enhance customer service with improved rate structures, including prepayment services.

OpenWay Riva will enable monitoring and management of the renewable integration and improved weather-related outage management, while offering other services such as remote customer disconnects and reconnects.

“We are providing the solution as a managed service hosted in the cloud,” says Nelsen. “We will run the network and manage data collection. With the ability to add functionality as the system matures, we can expect to add more applications over time.”

In the first phase the focus will be on using the data for billing before introducing other analytics.

Remote project implementation

The implementation of renewables generally gives rise to the need to upgrade the communications and control infrastructure and so solar and smart grid projects tend to go hand in hand. However, the impacts on the utility shouldn’t be underestimated and such projects need foresight and planning.

Nelsen points out that a benefit of a cloud solution is that much of the preparatory work can be done before going onsite. “The remoteness can lead to logistical difficulties and just getting people there can be a day’s journey or more. With the cloud, more optimum use can be made of time with significant savings on the costs, but it’s crucial to take account of these issues in the planning.”

In conclusion, he says: “Utilities should consider their grid upgrades at the same time as renewables deployment to ensure that the initiatives are in step and that the network is able to accommodate the increased renewable penetration.”