Smart grids France at the forefront of innovation

An essential pillar of energy transition, smart grids – otherwise known as intelligent electrical networks – have an enormous potential for growth. This is a field in which France excels: its ecosystem of expertise stretches from research to industrial applications and encompasses large companies, start-ups, public authorities and associations.

By 2030, intelligent electrical networks (IEN), a.k.a. smart grids, could be generating annual savings of €400 million in France, according to France’s Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) in a study published in July 2017. In 2013, in the context of the “New, Industrial France” programme, IENs were identified as one of the 34 fields of innovation offering the greatest benefits in terms of competitiveness and employment growth in France. For this reason, a smart grid R & D roadmap was created in 2014 under the stewardship of Dominique Maillard, at that time chairman of the board of directors of RTE, France’s transmission system operator. A snapshot of the sector at that time showed that smart grids employed 15,000 people and generated an annual turnover of €3 billion. This is expected to double by 2020, in tandem with the number employed in the sector rising to 25,000.

Michel Béna, RTE director of Smart grids. ©RTE

100,000 data pieces handled per second

Amongst the strategic priorities of the IEN road map is the requirement to develop the smart grids sector in France and promote French solutions on the world stage. With this aim, the association Think SmartGrids was established in April 2015 (see interview). “It aims to push forward development of the entire intelligent electrical networks sector, as well as creating a space for learning and research”, says Michel Béna, RTE’s smart-grids director. “Smart grids are effectively a process for the digitisation and digital transformation of the electricity network”, he adds. “RTE has already spent many years creating what it referred to as “intelligent” networks. We handle 100,000 data pieces per second to ensure that the system is well balanced and to verify that energy levels do not exceed the maximum physical capacity of the network. The collection and processing of data is also aimed at optimising management of our resources. The production and consumption data that we collect are made available to communities and companies so that they can put in place measures to improve their energy efficiency”.


Since 2009, ADEME has supported the deployment of a number of demonstrators to experiment with these intelligent electrical networks and systems, in many locations across France. They test the different functions that smart grids offer in terms of the energy transition: integration of renewable energies (photovoltaic, wind, etc.) into the electrical network, the behaviour of consumers in relation to managing their energy consumption, controlling peaks of consumption, and recharging electric vehicles, for example. In several cases, the demonstrator projects have already finished. One of these is Venteea, a project coordinated by Enedis completed in 2016.

Venteea project, one of the smart-grids demonstrators, is studying new storage arrangements for electricity generated by wind turbine. ©DR

VENTEEA project is located in the Aube department, which has one of the highest numbers of wind turbines in France. It studied how to adapt the power distribution network to the generation of wind power and solutions for storing it.

The storage trial used two lithium-ion battery containers – the largest battery storage system ever installed in France. Today, one of the partners in the consortium, Boralex, a company with renewable energy production sites in Canada, France, the UK and the USA, is in negotiations to start using the energy storage mechanism that was trialled by Venteea. Another example: Nice Grid, a pilot demonstration project for a smart solar district near Nice, also lead by Enedis, that is testing – amongst various other aims – applications of a communicating energy metre called Linky (applications include measuring users’ electricity consumption and estimating the available capacity of the network).

Creating region-wide smart grids

To obtain a better understanding of regional solutions to energy transition, the French government launched a call for applications/projects in April 2015 in order to promote large-scale smart grids in one or more French regions and in doing so create an industrial IEN showcase. In March 2016, three winning projects were chosen: SMILE (Smart Ideas to Link Energies), led by Brittany Regional Council in partnership with the region of Pays-de-la-Loire; Flexgrid, in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (known as PACA), and You & Grid, entered by the Métropole Européenne de Lille. Although the demonstrators are concentrating on one or several R&D aspects or even on a specific functionality (for example recharging of electric cars in multi-occupied housing developments), the overarching vision is to deploy smart grids over a much larger territory.

RTE showroom in Lille hosts working exhibit of its new intelligent electric substation. ©Brault Philippe/RTE 2016

PACA is a region that comprises various different climatic zones, large coastal cities, industrial port zones, an airport, ski resorts and some off-grid areas, and around 40 projects are now underway within its borders as part of the Flexigrid framework. The projects relate to range of solutions: optimisation of renewable energies, data centres, electromobility, smart territories, and intelligent buildings, amongst others. “Flexgrid’s objective is to create a road map for expertise, a showroom, arrived at through use cases and leading to the promotion of the companies involved on the international stage” explains Bernard Mahiou, director general of Capenergies, which leads the project management of Flexgrid. We also have cross-disciplinary projects and others focussing on big data, training, internationalisation, support and services to business, security of power supply and facilitating society’s embracing of the new technologies”. Although Enedis’ rollout of Linky smart metres encountered some resistance, Bernard Kleynhoff, a PACA regional councillor and chairman of Flexgrid’s strategy committee, highlights the importance of educational work around these subjects because the end users may not initially necessarily share the viewpoint of the service providers.

Emmanuelle Chaudieu