The electricity grid has become smart and ecological, opening up the way to a new world in our cities that will revolutionise the way we live. This evolution, which will bring energy through power lines, trellises, substations, cables and metres to our homes and factories, is the offspring of the Internet and the green economy. And of all-Italian ingenuity that started with smart metres and went on digitalise the grid and export this new model to the world.
The smart grid is, in fact, a series of “informed” energy distribution grids that optimise transmission of electricity, so that it becomes decentralised in relation to the power plants where it is produced. And that's not all. These grids communicate with one another at all points, optimising use of resources and reduction of waste. They identify faults and consumption peaks and measure the “degree” of energy that circulates and is generated at each point in the grid.
But what is a smart grid really for? Its purpose is not only supplying the end user but laying the foundations for development of a new 100% ecological form of energy. Renewable energy sources are, by definition, not programmable sources of energy. And the smart grid permits management of energy deficits and surpluses, taking full advantage of their potential.
Data and energy can be stored, processed and managed at any point in the grid. Those who have photovoltaic installations can contribute to the grid energy produced in excess of the requirements of the households or homes served by the system. A true revolution, considering that the previous system was entirely one-way (tree-shaped), from producer to end user. In smart grids, on the other hand, there is exchange in multiple directions, involving customers in storage of the energy generated by their photovoltaic or wind installations.
Italy is leading the way in the birth and development of smart grids, thanks in particular to Enel, which became the world’s first company to begin installing smart meters back in 1999.
From smart grids to smart cities
Like any revolution worthy of the name, smart grids have led to a cascade of changes to the physical places where they are set up: cities, homes, the transportation system.
“The evolution of our cities towards increasingly smart models must necessarily rely on technological infrastructure for efficient management of energy resources on an urban and territorial scale,” reflects Giuliano Dall'Ò, professor of Building Physics and Building Energy Systems at Politecnico di Milano, architect and author, in an interview with Infra Journal. “The smart grid, or transitional modernisation of electrical grids with a view to setting up the smart grid, is essential for safe, dependable integration of renewable sources, a non-programmable energy source, in our electricity grids. These technologies will make it possible to implement that transition from centralised electricity generation to an open generation system, in which consumers can also become producers of energy. This is why the combination between smart grids and smart cities is inseparable.”
The transition has begun, and is proceeding quickly. According to the report “Smart grids and Beyond: An EU research and innovation perspective”, edited by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC), the years 2014-2020 saw a 25% increase in the number of smart grid research and innovation projects. There was also a 59% increase in total investment and a 117% increase in EU funding over the years 2007-2013, when the seventh EU framework programme (FP7) was in effect.
“I believe smart grids will continue to evolve gradually, rather than in fits and starts. These are complex processes of transformation which will be conducted with great care,” explains Dall’O’. “I expect to see an increase in demand for electricity in our cities, for two reasons: replacement of fossil fuels for heating and hot water production, and electrical mobility. The transition to all-electric in these two sectors will make a significant contribution to speeding up the decarbonisation process. Imagining cities in which sustainable electrical mobility is integrated with the residential sector is an interesting opportunity. By the year 2030 our cities will be cleaner and more sustainable. This will only be possible with smart technologies integrating electricity and ICT grids.”
According to the figures reported by Juniper Research, smart grids will permit annual energy savings of 1,060 terawatt-hours by 2026, almost triple the 316 terawatt-hours of 2021.
These benefits will encourage energy transmission operators to invest in smart grid software: annual turnover is expected to exceed 38 billion by 2026, compared to 12 billion euro in 2021. Growth is reported in smart meters, an area in which Italy leads the way world-wide: the total number of smart meters in service will exceed 2 billion by 2026, as compared to 1.1 billion in 2021. But smart meters have not been evenly adopted all over the world: markets such as Latin America, Africa and the Middle East lag far behind western Europe, the Far East and China.
A “prototyping” phase
According to the “Top 50 Smart City Governments”, a ranking of the world’s top 50 smart cities by the Eden Strategy Institute, a consultancy specialising in the study of the cities of the future, London is the world’s top smart city, followed by Singapore, Seoul, New York City, Helsinki, Montreal, Boston, Melbourne, Barcelona and Shanghai. Progress is well underway in Italy, and the country has also set an important record.
“We’re currently going through a time of transition, in which smart grid applications are primarily prototypes. Large-scale development will take place a few years from now; there are technological and regulatory barriers to be overcome, and social barriers, too. A joint effort is required on the part of all stakeholders,” says Dall’O’.
But there are plenty of positive signs: in March, the Italian Ministry of the Ecological Transition approved a ranking of projects admitted for funding under the public competition for “smart grids” for “smartening” the electricity distribution grid. 32 of 35 the projects submitted were found to be eligible for funding, and will receive a total of approximately 207 million euro. Implementation of these projects, which are all located in southern Italian regions abounding in renewable energy sources, represents an interesting test for refining our technologies and contributing to the promotion of smart grids.
The region of Puglia currently has what is considered the world’s biggest smart grid. Puglia Active Network, set up in 2014 and now fully operative, is a smart, flexible electricity grid serving more than 2 million citizens of the region with about 30 thousand kilometres of medium-voltage lines connected to more than 44 thousand generators of electricity from renewable sources.
The 5G evolution
The process of smartening the grid will be promoted by 5G, permitting management of up to 1 million devices per square kilometre, ensuring longer battery life and enabling development of a new generation of real-time services by reducing latency to near zero, which essentially means faster, more precise connections.
For this reason it is believed that 5G will release all the potential of the IoT and become the driving force behind smart cities.
The growing number of interconnected objects will generate an unprecedented volume of data, which cities will be able to analyse - provided they have connections capable of supporting these immense quantities of data. According to the European Commission study “Identification and quantification of key socio-economic data to support strategic planning for the introduction of 5G in Europe”, we stand to gain numerous economic benefits from the growing use of smart meters with 5G. The value of these benefits for consumers is estimated at 3 billion euro by 2025; if strategic and operative benefits are also taken into account, their total value will be nearly 6.5 billion euro.