Energy is going through a massive transformation, which together with technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) are re-defining the way humans will live in the coming decades.
The challenges of supplying 7 billion people with power and energy are substantial. In the case of energy, this transformation is being driven at one end by the need to power a growing society in a way that makes sense for our environment. At the other end, rapid change is happening all-around us, thanks to continuous progress in technologies for sourcing and storing energy from renewables such as solar, wind and hydrogen.
In North America, a top priority is to reduce the stress put on the aging power grid. Most power and energy authorities – including the U.S. Department of Energy – believe renewable green sources of energy are the future for the planet. And while great strides have taken place in the production of renewables, demand for energy is still lagging behind energy produced.
For example, about 12% of power generation in the U.S. is wind and solar. Ten years ago this number was 1%. So, this has been very rapid growth of a modern, renewable energy source, and it is projected to continue at a similar pace.
However, increased use of these renewable energy alternatives presents a new challenge to the grid. In order for the power grid to function properly, power generated has to be matched to the power consumed, defined as load.
Solar and wind energy sources rapidly change or vary throughout the day, thus creating fast imbalances in the generation-to-load consumption. A higher load will reduce the operating voltage and frequency, and a lighter load will inversely affect the grid. Disturbing the grid in such a way can cause the whole grid to collapse, producing blackouts.
Historically, industries have relied on small generation units, called peaking generators, to keep the generation-to-load consumption in power grids balanced. Due to the increase in renewable energy sources, these units alone are no longer fast enough to respond to the imbalances produced.
One of the fixes researches are taking a look at is a modular multilevel converter that will allow for the selling of power, control over the amount of power used, regulation of the voltage and frequency, and a faster response time to grid disturbances. The converter is projected to be more cost-efficient, reliable and energy efficient, helping to mitigate the stress create by the growth in renewable energy.
Researchers are also developing a new grid-stability-monitoring capability to the power converter, allowing the flexible combined heat and power systems to operate safely within the physical limits of the electrical grid.
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