Research could make portable power networks easier to run

Research from Strathclyde University could make it easier to run portable electricity networks at military bases and disaster relief camps.

The ‘Self-Organising Protection System’ enables off-grid networks to connect equipment or energy sources, including renewable technology, without having to manually reconfigure the entire infrastructure.

The technology, which automatically reconfigures a network’s electrical protection system to ensure it operates safely, could also potentially be used in other autonomous systems such as oil platforms or even unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Current portable protection systems have to follow specific configurations and can’t easily add new outputs, for example if a disaster relief base wanted to set up hospital equipment, senior lecturer Dr Stuart Galloway told The Engineer.

‘In all these cases, they will have a particular way of setting up the power system to get one particular configuration and they won’t really deviate from that. Adding things on an ad-hoc basis changes things.

‘The electrical protection system needs to be reconfigured and that’s normally done on a manual basis by an experienced engineer. But that’s an extra resource and expertise required on the ground that may or may not be there.’

The solution was to develop algorithms that would enable the network to reconfigure itself safely, said senior research fellow Dr Ian Elders.

‘Rather than having all the intelligence and know-how sitting in the head of an engineer who gets the plans out, what if we put that intelligence out in the power network so that the individual devices can communicate with each other, work out what’s going on and decide what the best way to go about it is?’

The researchers have built a prototype system that includes electrical and communications infrastructure to demonstrate how the algorithms manage the addition or removal of equipment, as well as faults in the system.

They hope the technology will enable networks to include more complex structures that may previously have been avoided, for example combining several diesel generators in different locations with solar panels and wind turbines.

‘As the complexity of the network increases, it’s harder to understand what response you might get,’ said Galloway.

‘Even some very simple additions to the network can change the configuration considerably and that’s one of the reasons why the existing applications have simple networks.’

The researchers are looking to speak to people from across industry about how the technology could be tailored to specific applications where standalone power networks might need upgrading, such as oil platforms, large vessels or autonomous fault management — for example in UAVs.