Avoiding a generation gap

Electricity supply could descend into chaos in 30 years’ time as vast numbers of small wind generators and solar cells come on to the grid.

In response, a £2.5m research consortium, including Rolls-Royce and Scottish Power, has announced a project to tackle the challenges of co-ordinating such a complex distributed energy supply.

Prof David Infield, leading the consortium at LoughboroughUniversity, said small renewable energy sources and generators will become increasingly inexpensive and commonplace so there is an imperative to make effective use of their output.

‘We plan to look at the challenges of having many small generators in people’s homes and workplaces, prompted by the expectation that there will be a growth of solarvoltaics, microgenerators and small wind turbines,’ he said. ‘The electricity companies are a little apprehensive about how this new generation of supply will operate.’

The key question is whether a mix of distributed generators can supply energy for a community reliably or whether other power sources providing significant amounts from elsewhere are needed, said Infield.

There needs to be more work focusing on ensuring the distributed renewables and small generator power supplies of the future will be as reliable as today’s electricity networks, according to the researchers.

Choices need to be made over how to co-ordinate such a wide range of power sources, he said. ‘They might be controlled by local or regional centres, or by sending radio signals to tell generators to increase or decrease outputs, for example,’ said Infield.

The economics alone will be considerably more complex, he said.

‘We believe market trading can handle that complexity, as will the new technology, but that is by no means a given,’ he said. Researchers at OxfordUniversity will investigate solarvoltaic loads while those at Heriot-Watt will study power electronics, the physical interfaces between the main supply system and the distributed power sources.

The EPSRC project, part of the SUPERGEN programme that supports future renewable energy research, which is due to start in June, will run for four years.