THE WHOLE world has become used to the convenience of electricity: by merely plugging in we can turn on lights, computers, heaters, cookers as well as car production lines or aluminium smelters. But behind each power switch is a complex system of electricity generators, operators of transmission and distribution networks and power suppliers which, because of one of the main characteristics of electricity – it cannot be easily or cheaply stored – have to coordinate very precisely their operations in order to have just enough electricity to satisfy the minute-to-minute demands of consumers at the very end of the chain.
But while this process has until now been one-way, with electricity flowing from producers to consumers on demand, technological development and changes in the needs of the market are turning it into a two-way street. Consumers are now becoming occasional electricity producers, and instead of just consuming power also supplying it to the grid. This shift in roles has become more pronounced as people have begun to harness renewable energy sources, like solar or wind power, locally.
It has also led to a change in the general view of the energy sector, so that production of electricity is not seen as being necessarily linked directly to demand. Instead, consumption can be managed to respond to changes in production. One way to do this is to implement smart grids and smart metering.
“In respect to the expansion of the internal market and European goals for reduction of the impacts of climate change, and in particular for cross-border trading in electricity via exchanges and support for electricity production from renewable sources, the infrastructure as well as its management are unsatisfactory in the current configuration,” Martin Sliva, from the department of fuels and energy at the Slovak Economy Ministry, told The Slovak Spectator. “Our networks were built in a way that they can cope with a certain unexpected increase or decrease in production… But the factors [I have] mentioned cause higher and higher costs in order to maintain the reliability of the whole network, while the technical possibilities for [improvement of existing] individual networks are limited.”
Apart from efforts to find some way to store excess electricity produced during optimum conditions, for example by solar power stations during sunny weather, there are also plans to develop demand-side management (DSM) as well as so-called electric highways to connect places of production with places of consumption.
“The field of DSM programmes for power consumers touches upon power producers and network operators to motivate consumers to reduce their power consumption,” said Sliva, adding that distribution companies have gradually launched modified DSM programmes in the form of information campaigns related to energy efficiency.
Experts highlight that proper metering is necessary to make grids smart, but that the installation costs for smart meters and their operation must be considered, in order to ensure that they do not exceed the likely benefits.
“The smart grid can be characterised as a modernised electricity grid supplemented by two-way digital communication between the supplier and consumer, smart meters for electricity consumption and monitoring, and control systems,” said Sliva. “Its corner stone is smart metering systems.”
Installation of these systems is required by the EU’s third energy package, currently being transposed into Slovak legislation by the new energy laws which the Slovak parliament adopted in late July. Based on a cost-benefit analysis of the installation of smart metering systems elaborated by the Regulatory Office for Network Industries (ÚRSO), consumers with annual consumption above 4 MWh should be equipped with such systems by the end of 2020.
These consumers account for about 23 percent of all projected consumers to 2020 and for about 53 percent of all electricity consumed at low voltage level, according to Sliva.
The Economy Ministry will cooperate with other involved parties on creating a scenario for installation of smart metering systems to ensure that the final system is economically effective.
SEPS has welcomed the introduction of these new technologies.
“Smart meters are a precondition for the introduction of a higher level of management of grids,” Igor Gallo from Slovenská Elektrizačná Prenosová Sústava (Slovak Electricity Transmission System, or SEPS) told The Slovak Spectator. “The more [meters] are installed in distribution networks, the better overview all involved will have of real flows of electricity.”
According to Gallo, this process will involve not only consumers, but state bodies, producers and network companies. It will increase the chances that more and more consumers realise reserves in their consumption behaviour and are able to reduce their electricity bills. However, the cost of a smart meter, which is about €70 higher than a conventional meter, may be an obstacle to the wider usage of smart meters by Slovak households, many of which use relatively trivial amounts of electricity and instead rely on natural gas for the bulk of their energy needs.
“Certainly not all of them will be willing to curb their consumption, but everyone who has a smart meter will obtain an advantage in terms of possible rationalisation [of energy use] in their household or company,” said Gallo, adding that more information about consumption would also limit illegal consumption, and make metering of consumption and its invoicing more user-friendly.
Slovenské Elektrárne (SE), the major electricity producer in Slovakia, believes that the installation of smart grids would increase effectiveness and would like to see more smart meters being installed in Slovakia. It believes that the installation of smart metering systems would improve the quality of services to clients, enabling them to monitor their electricity consumption and control it actively and thus also reduce their electricity consumption.
“The parent company Enel [of Slovenské Elektrárne] has developed a sophisticated remote management system which enables monitoring of parameters of the grid and carries out activities as well as identifies malfunctions automatically,” Janka Burdová, SE spokesperson told The Slovak Spectator. “Such automation reduces the period of malfunctions and limits the travelling of technicians. This, on one hand, increases the user’s comfort and on the other hand reduces operating costs.”
SE regards replacing only one quarter of meters by 2020, i.e. meters of consumers with annual consumption above 4MWh, as insufficient.
“This seems to us as unsatisfactory with regard to the positives that smart metering systems provide, either to the consumers, suppliers or administrators of meters,” said Burdová, adding that SE is willing to cooperate with defining the rules for installation of smart meters as well as the evaluation of the pilot programme, while it would like to see a flat installation of smart systems in Slovakia. “This is because our goal is to provide to clients as extensive of a space as possible for making decisions over the conditions and the costs with which they want to consume electricity. This is impossible without smart metering systems.”
Electricity suppliers, which meter clients’ consumption, do not see installation of smart meters as being of great benefit to small energy consumers including households, while they say their large clients already enjoy different kinds of smart metering and use it to optimise their consumption.
“Smart grids must be implemented based on the higher requirements of quality and reliability of electricity supply,” Jana Bolibruchová, spokesperson for regional electricity distributor Stredoslovenská Energetika (SSE), told The Slovak Spectator. “Smart meters would only be appropriate for a select group of consumers. General implementation of smart meters would result in high expense which would be reflected in the electricity price. This would be an expense not only in terms of the devices themselves but also in terms of data transmission, which would result in the need to build new transmission equipment.”
Východoslovenská Distribučná (VSD), another regional electricity distribution firm, agrees that small consumers, i.e. households, remain a questionable target.
“They will have to adapt their consumer behaviour to a certain extent,” VSD spokesperson Andrea Danihelová told The Slovak Spectator. “In this case the possibility of savings and the virtually unlimited access to the network which consumers are currently used to will stand against each other. The question of whether this will suit small consumers remains [unanswered].”
Bolibruchová of SSE agrees that management on the consumption side is always very sensitive, because customers need to feel that regulation does not represent a deterioration in their comfort, and accept regulation as a service which benefits them rather than a requirement which they are forced to accept.
Danihelová added that since Slovakia is covered with a dense gas distribution network and that as well as gas Slovaks also use wood for heating, there is only limited room for households to reduce their electricity consumption significantly. Preliminary results from a VSD pilot project indicate this too, she said.
With regards to the installation of smart meters VSD also stresses the need to first invest in the renewal and construction of distribution networks, which were historically underdesigned.
“Otherwise we do not see a high benefit from smart metering, either for the distribution network or for the client,” said Danihelová.
Power distributors also say it is necessary first to answer questions about what smart metering would mean for Slovak consumers, and within the European context. For example, it is not clear who would be responsible for administering the sensitive data about consumers’ energy consumption patterns typically collected by smart meters; it is also not clear for whom solutions like smart meters would actually be effective.
“All the benefits, risks and expenses create a mix of factors that must be assessed for the purpose of judging the relevant technology implementation within the relevant scope and time,” said Bolibruchová.