Power to the pylons

The world’s big power engineering groups are turning up the pressure on governments to encourage investment in creaking national electricity grids or face more wide-scale blackouts.

ABB, the Zurich-based power technology giant, said grid operators had been offered insufficient incentives to invest in the infrastructure of their networks, contributing to the power cuts that have afflicted the US, the UK, Italy and others over the past few years.

The engineering group’s call coincided with this week’s release of a report that claimed stability of power supplies has shot to the top of the generation industry’s agenda.

A survey of almost 150 utility companies by business services group PWC discovered that most now regard disruption to supplies as their biggest problem. A few years ago it was seldom mentioned as a concern at all.

Speaking at an ABB event in Sweden, Peter Smits, head of the group’s power technologies division, said the blackouts had sparked demand from governments and operators for ways of preventing future failures. ‘There is a lot of interest in how to prevent these blackouts,’ claimed Smits, who said the power cuts had forced operators to make fundamental decisions on their R&D and technology strategies.

But Smits claimed that the drive to deregulate electricity markets had failed to take full account of the need to keep basic infrastructures up to scratch.

In a scenario reminiscent of the UK’s railways, he said this had contributed to the serious breakdowns of the past few years. ‘There is obsolete equipment in place and an insufficient transmission grid.’A major barrier to modernisation, according to Smits, is the uncertain rewards for power companies operating as commercial entities rather than state utilities.

‘The grids were built for the needs of a regulated market and not adapted to the free market,’ he said. ‘Nobody today is motivated to make an investment that is simply aimed at getting stability in the grid.’

Smits said regulators should draw up guidelines that would reward investment in infrastructure technologies and set clear standards for power supply stability.

ABB and other power technologies have a clear incentive of their own to wade into the debate over upgrading grid infrastructures. The utilities that operate the networks are their customers, and a big chunk of any extra spending would flow their way.

PWC’s report claimed that the global electricity industry would need $10 trillion of investment over the next 25 years to meet rising demand for power. UK utility Powergen said up to £70bn will need to be spent on this country’s electricity infrastructure over the next decade.

After years of banging their heads against a brick wall, power engineering groups have responded enthusiastically to the challenge of finding their services in demand.

According to ABB, several key technologies are emerging as possible solutions to the problem.

One is high-voltage direct current (HVDC), a system used to connect independent power grids and to transmit power in bulk over long distances via underground or underwater cables.

HVDC is not new. Last week ABB gathered in Gotland, an island off Sweden’s east coast, to mark the 50th anniversary of the world’s first HVDC link, which brought its inhabitants power from the mainland.Since then HVDC has generally taken a back seat to the conventional HVAC technology used in major power networks.

However, ABB claimed that advances in HVDC technology now allow it to play a more high-profile role in the wake of the blackouts. The power in HVDC lines can be fully controlled, meaning they cannot be overloaded. This allows power to be exchanged between different grids without the risk that a failure in one will spread to adjoining networks. In Europe it could allow more efficient sharing of power resources, allowing one grid to act as a back-up to another in times of excessive demand.

China, which is embarking on a massive expansion programme for its power system, has become a major investor in HVDC. The technology is expected to form up to 15 per cent of China’s high-voltage transmission network.

An offshoot of the technology, called HVDC Light, uses voltage source converters to make HVDC transmission economic over short distances. According to ABB, this makes HVDC viable as a connector technology to link renewable energy sources such as wind farms to national grids, and to deliver power to offshore oil and gasinstallations.