11 July 2024

Once upon a time, all electrical power systems were “top down”. It all started in the late 19th Century with a plethora of individual, non-standardised, small and local electricity systems, often consisting of a single generator powering a public lighting system in towns or cities. These evolved to become the ultra-reliable interconnected power systems that we all enjoy today – or at least have enjoyed up until now. Apparently, the British system was initially interconnected as an unauthorised experiment by a maverick group of regional control engineers in 19371.

The electricity transmission and distribution systems supplied by the generators in such system were largely passive. The overall system was complex – some say the most complex system every created by humans – but it became well-understood by some very clever people. It was controllable, relatively predictable, stable, strong and reliable. However, this came at the expense of emitting lots of carbon and other pollutants. Nevertheless, the electricity systems of the latter-half of the 20th Century, in the developed world at least, were an emissions-carefree power system engineer’s dream.
Discoveries, developments in technology, and the creation of physics-based models and mathematical techniques and transforms, crafted by the great minds of individuals including Franklin, Tesla, Faraday, Maxwell, Fortescue, and Fourier (other great minds are available)2 , meant that electrical power systems and their behaviours became, almost-completely, understood and “modellable” (is that a word?). Over time, this resulted in the creation of power systems and associated monitoring, control and protection systems that were very effective, and everyone lived happily ever for a while…

…sorry kids. There are a few issues with traditional, large, centralised, fossil-fuel based generators, and a big part of the solution involves many new-fangled generators, often powered by renewable energy sources, connected all over the place, and often in the “wrong place” in terms of proximity to demand – even miles out to sea. Many of them don’t even produce good-old AC, but DC. Thomas Edison would be delighted – he is another one of those great minds mentioned earlier3 . Other technologies, such as hydrogen, that we can produce from electricity, store, transform into electricity, use to create heat directly, or even use as an alternative fuel for power generation or transport, are wanting in on the act, as well as massive changes in the nature of demand, due to the electrification of heat and transport. A huge increase in energy storage will also be required in the future. Once this is all sorted, then we can perhaps all live happily ever after…

In summary, we are moving from a big, carbon-emitting, well-understood, stable and modellable (that’s definitely not a word is it?) system, to a cleaner, more (much more) complex, definitely not-so-well-understood (yet), potentially volatile, and difficult-to-model system.

In terms of understanding, monitoring, controlling and protecting this complex system, clearly a lot of accurate, believable, and ideally time-synchronised, measurement data is required. Historically, measurements were taken from the active elements of the systems, the generators (remembering that in the past this was a small amount of large, transmission-connected, conventional power sources). Measurements were also taken from selected locations on the transmission and distribution systems – typically within substations – said data being used for various monitoring, control and protection functions. The “bottom” of the electricity supply system – the lower voltage distribution and “last mile” elements – were largely not monitored nor controlled extensively, as they were passive in nature and simply used to transfer power from the upstream generators to the loads.

So what? The overall system is becoming far more complex, with many (many, many) more active elements and sources of power connected at all locations, as well as massive changes in how power is being, and will be, consumed, produced and stored. The need for measurements, at all levels of the system, to inform monitoring, control, protection and management functions, is growing significantly. These measurements will also allow us to build up our understanding and knowledge of how and why present and future systems behave the way they do – we need another set of great minds to help with that too – and the requirement for this has never been greater. We must address all of this (very) urgently, or this story might have a sad ending.

Personally, I really enjoy my dual roles as a co-founder and director of Synaptec, alongside my academic post at the University of Strathclyde. It is great working on future energy systems research (my current major collaborative project may be of interest4 ) and in developing commercial solutions to support the secure and stable operation of the system. I am privileged to be a member of several excellent teams, both at Synaptec and Strathclyde (as well as with many other partners), working together to ensure that there can be a happy ending to this story.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Grid_(Great_Britain)
2 For more on the history of electricity – https://www.gavinelectrical.com/history-of-electricity/
3 For more on this – read about “the war of the currents” – https://www.energy.gov/articles/war-currents-ac-vs-dc-power
4 https://www.strath.ac.uk/whystrathclyde/news/2023/digitaltwinprojectwillinformfutureinnovationintheukenergyindustry/

Campbell Booth headshot

Prof. Campbell Booth, Applications Director