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.
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 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.
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.
“Poste Intelligent” – smart substations: enabling the energy transition
With its objectives to better integrate renewable energies (wind, solar), increase network capacities using sensors, remotely resolve incidents using geolocation, amongst others, the “Poste Intelligent” smart substations project is one of the most emblematic of the 120 smart grid demonstrators in France. The experiment has been taking place in the Somme department since 2016 and is the first of its kind in the world. It aims to optimise the capacities of electrical substations to better handle the massive development of renewable energies, using a combination of sensors, optical fibres and the latest digital technologies. The substations are equipped with a weather station and can adapt to climatic conditions. They are also “self-healing” and can, in the event of an incident on the network (such as a lightning strike or power surge) to cut the defective line’s current, run an analysis and then automatically restore the current if all indicators are green.
With a budget of €32 million, the project is coordinated by RTE and consortium partners are GE Grid Solution, Schneider Electric, Alcatel-Lucent, Enédis and Neelogy. “A huge number of foreign delegations are visiting the smart substation” adds Michel Béna, RTE’s director of smart grids. “What is interesting for GE in terms of the electricity substation is that when we host these delegations from foreign operators, RTE is leading the conversation. The delegations know that they face the same constraints as us and this gives GE added value and greater credibility”.
“The experiments taking place in France attract huge interest in many other countries”
Who are the members of the Think Smartgrids association?
When the association was established in April 2015, we comprised the 50 market actors and companies – large industrial groups, SMEs, start-ups, competitiveness hubs, representatives from universities – who contributed to Dominique Maillard’ Roadmap for intelligent electricity networks. Today, we have around one hundred members, including two observer members representing the state: the Energy Regulatory Commission, and the DGE (Directorate-General for Enterprise), which comes under the authority of France’s Minister for the Economy and Finance Affairs.
What is its role abroad?
There is great interest in many other countries about what is happening in France, especially the data transmission solutions we have chosen. For example, the fact that we have deployed 35 million smart metres stands as a genuine benchmark. Smart grids can integrate renewable energies whilst at the same time improve network strength and thus they constitute a vital tool in speeding up implementation of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, which attracts huge interest in many countries.
Can you give us an example?
We signed a partnership agreement with Indonesia for a feasibility study of planning and implementing intelligent electricity networks on two types of island. One is a large island that already has a pre-existing network ripe for improvement, and the other a very small island which is almost entirely off-grid and on which micro-grid solutions could be installed. Thereafter, we plan to collectively market the expertise of our members : since the smart grid solutions France offers are the result of several actors with different competencies working together, the aim is to promote and push forward the ecosystem as a whole.
Interview by E.C.