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Planet | 28 Jul 2021

5G-enabled smart electricity substations to speed up switch to clean energy

So as you proudly watch your wind turbine spinning or the sun beating down on your solar panel array, you can enjoy a warm feeling as all that green electricity helps to save the planet.

But producing renewable energy is only half the story. You also have to distribute the electricity over the network so it can get to the homes, offices and factories that need it.

This is where power distribution operators come in. One such is UK Power Networks, the largest electricity distributor in the country delivering power to eight million homes across London, the South East, and East of England.

But it faces a big challenge.

Companies generating power from wind, solar and hydro sources, tend to be smaller in size but greater in number than traditional fossil-fuel based generation companies. For example, in 1990 there were just a handful of large, centralised generators producing electricity from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas.

Now there are more than 170,000 generators, ranging from small households selling their excess solar energy back to the grid, up to large-scale commercial wind farms. And all these new generators need to be integrated efficiently into a distribution network that’s been struggling to cope with all this new generation capacity.

So UKPN has teamed up with Vodafone to apply 5G mobile into its operations with the aim of increasing efficiency, cutting costs, and reducing the carbon footprint of the energy supply chain.

Clever Constellation

UKPN has developed Constellation, a smart substation prototype aimed at finding cheaper, more reliable ways to integrate renewable power generation providers into its network.

The partnership, a result of Ofgem’s Network Innovation Competition, will see Vodafone’s 5G mobile network replacing some of the conventional methods that currently connect the electricity management system.

When there is a problem – a power surge, for example – the power lines need to be switched off in milliseconds. Before 5G came along, fibre cables or microwave radio were the only means of carrying a signal quickly enough. Now Vodafone’s 5G cellular system rivals these for speed, with the added advantages of flexibility and reduced costs.

The intelligent substation systems needed to manage the electricity network in real time will communicate with each other over a dedicated, highly secure slice of Vodafone’s 5G Standalone (5G SA) network.

Over-the-air communication removes the need to dig up roads and fields to lay cables, which is cheaper, faster and less disruptive, thereby enabling small ‘green’ generation companies to be added to the network more easily.

And the more renewable energy providers UKPN can add to its network, the greater the contribution it will make towards achieving the UK’s ‘net zero’ carbon emissions goal.

‘Smart substations’

This kind of 5G innovation could save UK electricity customers more than £100m by 2050, UKPN believes, and reduce carbon emissions by near 64,000 tonnes over the same period – that’s the equivalent of nearly 39,000 return flights from London to New York.

“5G is not only replacing older and more expensive technologies, it is bringing about new capabilities that benefit everyone – including consumers, businesses and the environment,” said Andrea Donà, Vodafone’s Chief Network Officer in the UK.

UKPN is also calling on the expertise of General Electric, the University of Strathclyde, ABB and Siemens to develop the software running the Constellation system, so that it can integrate new suppliers faster, manage demand, and handle the addition of electric vehicles into the mix, both as users and providers of electricity to the grid.

UKPN plans to test the Constellation system at various locations in south-east England and at the University of Strathclyde’s Power Networks Demonstration Centre near Glasgow.

Ian Cameron, UKPN’s Head of Customer Services and Innovation, said: “Working with Vodafone and our industry and academic partners, we are creating a platform that will enable our network to become one of the smartest in the world.

“We already have smart control rooms and smart electric vehicle chargers – having smart substations in the middle will help us continue our work to facilitate Net Zero and deliver real cost and carbon savings for our customers.”

Vodafone itself has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions across its UK operations by 2027 and recently announced that every area of its business in the UK – including its network, data centres, retail stores and offices – is now 100% powered by electricity from renewable sources. The company is also well on the way to decarbonising its car and van fleet.

Read the full press release about the UKPN/Vodafone partnership here.

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