Electric light orchestration

A European grid computing project worth £4.7m could solve the approaching problem of how to co-ordinate the electricity output of a proliferation of new wind farms and solar power stations.

The UK power grid is today dominated by relatively few large power stations, but the move towards renewable energy will mean an explosion of smaller energy sources around the country.

Dr Peter Hobson, project leader of Brunel University’s portion of the GridCC project, said that dynamically co-ordinating alternative energy source output on the national grid will prove difficult in the future. Grid computing, which harnesses the processing power of many interconnected computers at different locations may be the answer, he said.

‘Today renewables contribute intermittently to the power grid, but in 15 years we’re aiming for 30 per cent of our power from alternative sources and it’s not viable to have them leaping on and off unexpectedly. We need a way to handle the change frommonitoring a few hundred power stations with private networks, to controlling 30,000 alternative energy generators.’

The project aims to develop the equipment and software needed to build a grid computing network that could autonomously process the instrument data from thousands of energy sources, and allow the power industry to optimise the ebb and flow of electricity on their national grids.

The EU is backing the three-year project with e3.99m (£2.8m), with additional funding coming from IBM Israel, UK and Italian research councils and nine academic institutions across Europe including Brunel University and Imperial College.

One of the team’s key aims is to monitor electricity surpluses and deficits as they happen. ‘The aim of most grid projects in the past was simply to distribute resources to get a large amount of computing power; to get as much power as possible but with no worry about when the information came back,’ said Hobson.

‘If you’re trying to control and monitor distributed power station control rooms with complex instrumentation, you need to know that the information you’re getting is in real-time.’

The research will also examine whether existing fibre-optic networks are reliable enough, or whether dedicated point-to-point cable would be needed.

‘Our existing networks package the data and send it as parcels that are put together at the other end, but there’s no guarantee that all of the information will get there,’ said Hobson. ‘We may be able to send packaged data via multiple routes to ensure it all gets there, but that also has cost implications.’

Point-to-point fibre optics would be more reliable by streaming the data as one package, but would leave unused bandwidth so may not be commercially viable.

‘We don’t know yet how it would fit in with the existing infrastructure, that’s very much an aim of the project,’ said Hobson. ‘The generators could be controlled in geographical regions, or perhaps as a whole.’