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Energy Internet: How Renewables are Changing the World

Ken Boyce
By Ken Boyce, PE Director, UL

The sun comes up every morning, and in general one day looks much like the next. However, in reality our world is rapidly changing. The infrastructure surrounding us might also look the same, but is also evolving quickly.

Deployment of more renewable energy is reinventing the way we produce and transmit power. Also, the proliferation of information technology is permeating equipment and applications. These megatrends are creating the new Energy Internet.

That sun that rises each morning is powering more and more solar panels. Photovoltaic (PV) power applications have grown and are projected to continue growing rapidly in the US and globally. Local policies might result in some fluctuations, but the advancement of solar makes it competitive and attractive. Expansion of both rooftop and utility scale PV is driving demand for equipment and processes that can assess performance and durability.
 

Initiatives such as the US Department of Energy’s PREDICTS2 program are spurring science forward to build confidence for financial, engineering, and other interests. For example, UL’s ongoing solar research project uses PV module backsheets and installation environment for predictive modeling of performance and durability.

The Energy Internet is more than solar, however. Sunlight warming the earth’s atmosphere results in wind, which drives an increasing global population of wind turbines. Energy efficiency technologies use advanced intelligence to transform the way we use and maximize electrical power in all buildings.

Energy storage systems, using powerful banks of lithium or other advanced batteries, are enabling new ways to use energy exactly when it is needed. Electric vehicles are changing from a means of transportation to an extension of the energy infrastructure. Microgrids powering campuses and neighborhoods use technology to seamlessly integrate distributed energy resources (DERs), the grid, and buildings. These microgrids elevate resiliency, real-time responsiveness, and the ability to optimize production and use of electricity.

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Inverters, which connect DERs to the electrical grid, continue to grow in sophistication. Smart inverters are offering differentiated responses (such as voltage and volt/VAR responses) to best support the grid. This progression reduces grid challenges from DERs (e.g. intermittency) and leverages their distributed nature to make the grid stronger. Inverters also are providing additional safety functionality, such as arc fault protection and rapid shutdown of rooftop PV installations, to support first responder safety and effectiveness.

All these energy technologies offer intriguing new ways for us to connect, use and maintain our global resources. The influx and proliferation of advanced technology in energy infrastructure is following the pattern that drove Gordon Moore to formulate his famous “Moore’s Law” in the semiconductor industry, which makes sense because of the key roles that semiconductors and IT play in the Energy Internet.

With newfound advantages come new challenges. The connectivity that offers so many possibilities also raises significant issues about interoperability and cybersecurity. Will the equipment used in a microgrid work together, in both normal and abnormal modes? Will introducing an energy efficiency network cause unintended consequences for building physical safety or operation? Will a communication system, essential for real-time information exchange and control, also allow cyberattacks? Innocuous products like security cameras have led to major security breaches, and as the population of connected energy equipment grows exponentially, vulnerabilities quickly escalate. Can wireless transmission technologies, eliminating physical constraints for cables, be safely used? These critical questions must be resolved.

Fortunately, significant work is underway to solve these issues. Interoperability and performance are being addressed in various ways, including standardization efforts for specific platforms and enhanced ways to assess system performance. Energy efficiency programs are clarifying the impacts of individual systems on the overall installation. Cybersecurity standards like the UL 2900 series and corresponding assurance programs are helping to mitigate cyber-risks. Wireless safety standards are being aggressively developed.

These and other activities are proactively supporting our next-generation energy infrastructure. When you get up to greet the sun tomorrow, pause to reflect about how we are collectively advancing the new Energy Internet for a clean and safe future.

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