Renewable energy drives demand for smarter power grids

The key energy trend in Europe in the last decade has undoubtedly been the push to renewables. Since a landmark EU agreement was reached in 2008 to produce one fifth of the continent’s energy from renewables by 2020, European countries have been working hard to meet their respective targets.

Some countries are frontrunners. "The UK and Denmark are leading from the front, especially when it comes to wind energy," explains Taimur Malik of Progressive Global Energy. “They have embraced the change within their countries and made sure they're hitting their energy targets." In the Netherlands, investment has focused heavily on biomass as well as wind power, while Germany tops the EU in terms of use of solar power.

There remains a stumbling block, however. With the change in how energy is sourced comes a requirement to change how that energy is organised, stored and transported – something that current grids are not designed to handle.

Power grids under pressure

Germany's move from nuclear power to more sustainable forms of energy – wind power and solar in the main – has put enormous pressure on its existing grids, which can't always cope. "There was a large proportion of gigawatts that solar had to provide in Germany. But that had to stop because the grid wasn't up to scratch,” says Taimur.

The German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin estimated in a 2013 report that the country would need to invest EUR 6.1bn annually into its power grids in order to properly integrate renewables. But the issue is Europe-wide. EU Commissioner for Energy and Climate Action Miguel Arias Cañete made the point in March of this year: "The variability of renewables requires more flexibility from the grid. The distributed nature of much of the new generation capacity requires new approaches, technologies and markets."

Two-way energy flows

There are other reasons why the grid of the future needs to be smart. Instead of grids being the starting point for energy, with an end point at the consumer, smart grids allow the energy to flow both ways. The increase in domestic and business solar panels, for instance, allows consumers to not only create their own energy, but to pass on or sell any surplus to the grid.

Smart grids will also use computer technology to communicate with everyday items in the home – the washing machine, the central heating system – to make sure that they are operating in the most efficient way to save energy. At peak times when consumption is at its highest, the smart grid could communicate with a washing machine and tell it to pause until the peak period is over. Those appliances in turn are connected to consumers' smartphones, allowing them to control their appliances from outside the home.

Massive investment into smart grids will have an obvious knock-on effect in the labour market, as Taimur explains: "Smart grids will be a huge topic in recruitment over the coming years. Some analysts estimate there will be a need for half a million new engineering specialists to work on the smart grid within the next five years in Germany alone.”