The future of electrical distribution

Cheryl Dyer Ballard examines the next generation of electrical distribution. In the United Kingdom, the National Grid was first established in 1901, and has grown into the behemoth that we all use in this country today.  Blissfully unaware for the most part of its impact on our lives, we only truly appreciate it in its absence, during power cuts or industrial action. But what if the system that we have become so used to suddenly fails or misbehaves to the point where it is no longer a viable system? And how will future systems work beyond what we know as the grid today?  Cheryl looks at one 21st century approach to power distribution by Power-Blox, a Swiss company, and looks at its incredible potential.

Will the power grid ever fail?

The development of electricity is seen by many as the biggest development in technology of the 20th century, and considered as one of the top ten technological achievements of all time. So much so in fact that, six of the other top 10 developments are dependent on electricity themselves in order to function.

Taking this into consideration, let’s look at our National Grid. Is it acceptable in this day and age to assume that the grid may well be too big to fail?  It is important to remember that in the United Kingdom, our grid was designed over a century ago, using what was then the latest advances in technology.  Since its original design was completed there have been many advances to technology, and some of those have been used to make modifications to the grid. The grid as we know it is in fact very vulnerable to attacks and failures.

It has also, like so many other electrical grid systems in the world, stifled a fair few advances in distributed generation and renewable energy. Many are of the opinion that the grid maybe seen as too big to fail, but it is also seen by many as too big to reinvent.  On the other hand, you must ask the question could the Grid actually fail?

Reinventing The Grid

It is correct to think that engineers (the people who design and work on these projects) are better placed to make judgements than pen pushers working on such projects. An example of this is a Swiss company called Power-Blox.  The company is looking to reinvent the way we think of power grids.

The co-founder of Power-Blox, Armand Martin has said that the program code used to control Power-Blox is only a few pages long, and can be stored on a CD-ROM. To date the company’s trials have led to them assembling a mini grid, consisting of twenty Power-Blox units working together.  Theoretically the Power-Blox could be scaled up to any level.

Their view is that a distributed power system should be made up of many mini grids or control modules, all linked together to provide the same service as a single massive power grid. They took their inspiration for this from nature, asking as so many scientists do, what would happen in the natural world? The answer to this question was to look at swarm behaviour.  Should the swarm approach work, then it may be that this approach is taken to eventually rebuild our own National Grid in order to make it fit for the 21st century and beyond.

What is Swarm Technology?

Before we can understand what swarm technology is, we need to understand the characteristics that swarms exhibit. There are many species who move in swarms…Ants, Bees, Fish and many different varieties of bird. The characteristics that define them as a swarm are that they all move in the same direction as their neighbour, yet they stay close to each other without any collision, and often their collective behavioural reactions are strangely faster than any of the individual agents within it.  These species share certain properties. When analysed, are all very simplistic and the size of a swarm can increase dependent upon ambient conditions.  Swarms do not require a specific leader in order to lead the movement. Power-Blox are applying this theory in their approach to building power grid systems.

A spokesman for Power-Blox remarked that if a swarm grid was to be used, each component would need to learn how to adapt in its surroundings, observations would be taken with regards to the parameters and the swarm would change its movements or behaviours using Artificial Intelligence routines.

The founder of Power-Blox, Alessandro Medici, has taken the time to explain the theory behind the approach further.  He said, “We are very early at the beginning of the Artificial Intelligence integration and just opened a huge research field. At the moment it is more a pattern matching observation and not yet a fully-fledged AI. So, the learning aspect is done manually, by observing the behaviors of the Power-Blox in the swarm and adapting the firmware.”

As they are still teaching the AI systems involved how to learn, Medici has also said that their next step was to participate in some Internet of Things trials so that they can get some test data to help support their research. Once successful, the data would be gathered and then used it to adjust and program the AI algorithms.  This in turn will help with the process of learning how to adapt to change in response to network demands.

Should a bounce be identified within a swarm grid that contains several Power-Blox, then these “bloxes” could in turn react when observing those initial bounces by changing and adapting their behaviours.  Once the Power-Blox has learnt to identify any issues, it will then provide a response that will counteract any problems with individual reactions whilst stabilising the overall network.

The programming of the AI will occur in two phases, the first is programming the AI how to learn, and the second is to enable exactly how the AI should react to what it has learnt.

“Our main approach is: As a smart grid gets bigger and bigger and more individual and uncontrollable prosumers get active in the grid, a centralized controlled approach will not work at a certain stage. There is a need for a mechanism, where each element that has the possibility to stabilize the grid – and storage devices have this ability – they should support it.”

Achieving a more steady and vigorous power grid will mean that more energy will be distributed, and will be able to fully integrate other systems, including renewable and local energy sources. The way the energy is stored is also vital to its success. Once the energy has been stored, it can then be redistributed to where it is needed. This is different to many current systems, as the stored energy can be sent to where it is needed. Currently those who are working the on the National Grid often have a balancing act around to ensure that supply is actually able to meet demand.

How the Power-Blox work

Currently a Power-Blox in its basic model consists of a battery which is either Li-ion or AGM, a lead acid variant.  These batteries can store 1.2 kWh of energy, and can deliver 200W of power continuously; their power can be boosted up to 370W in a short burst similar to that needed when covering for a surge in demand.

Solar cells can also be connected via a controller with a built-in charge.  This allows for off grid and grid tied requests. The combined inverter is able to provide 230 VAC at 50 Hz.  The Power-Blox has three different models currently in use. The first is a stand-alone model with UPS/Backup and once connected is grid tied.  When the Power-Blox is operating in standalone mode, solar cells can be used charge the Power-Blox, allowing it to provide power to devices directly through AC outlets, USB ports and a 12V car adapter.  If a Power-Blox does not have the solar panel, it can operate as a back-up device, and will pull its energy from the grid.  The Power-Blox will still be able to supply energy when the supply from the grid has been interrupted.

The most interesting mode of all the modes is the ‘grid-tied’ mode. This allows for interaction between the microgrids and allows the distribution of power to several users all of whom will be sharing the power.  The Power-Blox has a set of simple rules that it follows –  one of these rules is that it will prioritise devices that are plugged in. Once it has provided power there, then it provides power to its neighbours.

Why use modular systems?

Our original National Grid started out supplying a limited number of customers from a small plant, the approach that Power-Blox would like to introduce. Currently their design is simple and on a small scale, and several of them have been installed in areas where national power grids cannot reach. This is especially innovative, when you take into considering some of the developing nations.  In the future, distributed power systems with a base level of intelligence are obviously the way forward, especially with the advent of the Internet of Things.

Also, there is the advantage of such a system having in-built redundancy.   If one node fails, these units like a swarm, regroup and fill in the missing information within the system, adapting almost immediately to the change in circumstances.  It is almost certain that apart from the requirements of the customers, the economic advantages of such systems becomes obvious.  For example in 2003, the mass blackouts in the US and the UK were caused by factors that the overall power grids involved had not been designed to take into account. With adaptive systems, these sort of events are no longer a problem.

There is also the security factor to consider – with the advent of cyber terrorism or more natural phenomena such as solar flares, there is a need to be able to isolate nodes within a swarm in order to protect the system overall, especially on a national or global level.  It is perhaps worth noting that swarm technology for power supply and demand has many advantages and will almost certainly become more commonly used in the near future.

Cheryl Dyer-Ballard

Women in Engineering


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