Professor Xiao-Ping Zhang delivered his inaugural lecture in February 2015
Just as the Worldwide Web revolutionised the global exchange of information, so the ‘power and energy internet’ (PEI) – a remarkable idea pioneered in Birmingham by Professor Xiao-Ping Zhang – could one day transform the world’s energy use and management by the exchange of power sources across continents as well as locally.
Its establishment would mean power grids across the globe would be linked, leading to a shared focus in meeting energy challenges, which in turn would almost certainly lead to cheaper electricity, renewable energy becoming the main power sources and a significant drop in CO2 emissions.
And at the centre of this global energy revolution would be Birmingham.
Professor Xiao -Ping Zhang, Professor of Electrical Power Systems and the Birmingham Energy Institute's Smart Grid Director said:
'My research is related to the development of optimisation, control and protection technologies for smart grid and PEI in order to deliver sustainable, secure, resilient and reliable energy systems. The concept of PEI, which was proposed by us about four years ago, is very simple. Most people are familiar with the Internet: What we do is mimic the idea of the Internet – by making all the different power grids and energy systems highly connected to one another. At the moment, the different energy systems – the gas network, heat network and electricity network – are not integrated. Bringing them together, nationally and internationally, is what PEI is about. Interconnecting energy supplies would allow us to optimise them efficiently. And this can be done globally.'
It means we might one day, in the not-too-distant future, be able to trade energy with countries around the world – as well as with our next-door neighbours!
‘It would mean, for example, that the UK could buy electricity from India and vice versa,’ explains Chinese-born Xiao-Ping. ‘The reason this would be a good idea is the time difference between countries: when it’s daytime in one country – when demand is high – that country could buy energy from a county where it’s night-time, when demand is low and therefore there’s excess power in the grid.’
Not only could countries buy and sell cheap energy from one another, the PEI would bind them together in a way that would force everyone to work together to develop smarter and more sustainable energy systems.
In February 2015, the international integration of energy systems came a step closer when the European Commission unveiled its strategy for the establishment of an Energy Union – a concept proposed in 2013 by Xiao-Ping and his research group.
‘A European Energy Union will ensure secure, affordable and climate-friendly energy for citizens and businesses,’ the EC announced. ‘Using energy more wisely and fighting climate change is not only an investment in our children's future, it will also create new jobs and growth.’
Xiao-Ping is, of course, delighted at the development, and is confident Birmingham and the West Midlands region – which he calls ‘energy valley’ – has a pivotal part to play.
If you look at the future of PEI, the UK is going to be not only the European hub but also the global hub. We have an awful lot of renewable energy resources here in the UK – tidal, wave and wind. Also, the Birmingham region is the energy hub of the UK already: most energy-related companies – from National Grid, E.ON, Western Power Distribution and npower to GE, ABB, ALSTOM and Rolls-Royce – have either offices or manufacturing centres in the Birmingham and West Midlands area. So Birmingham is second to none in the world – which could make us the centre of the world’s energy network or Internet.
It is apt, then, that Birmingham has developed an advanced real-time power grid simulator (RTS) to test ideas for the future of PEI. Part-funded by the Government and National Grid, it is more powerful than a super-computer.
‘It has the capability of nano-scale modelling of system components,’ explains Xiao-Ping, who recently delivered his Inaugural Lecture on the ‘Power and Energy Internet of Everything’. ‘By investigating the interactions between the simulator, control and protection systems, and products being tested, we are able to accelerate new energy product and system innovation prior to deployment on the grid.
‘The simulator gives us the opportunity to find out what is going to happen in the future. Take the increased use of electric vehicles, for example. They’re going to be charged from the grid, but they are mobile energy sources and will create random demand peaks at different locations to the grid. As the demand for that increases exponentially, how do we deal with it? The simulator will help us find this out.’
A specific area of Xiao-Ping’s PEI work is smart grid research, which at the University is focused on a wide range of projects to help deliver the step-change in technology required to integrate large- and small-scale generation electric vehicles as well as a variety of energy-storage technologies. It also looks at the development of ‘smart’ homes, where householders not only have their own wind turbines and solar panels, but are also able to trade energy with their neighbours and even have their health monitored remotely by their GPs in the context of PEI.
Xiao-Ping, who came to Birmingham eight years ago, is both optimistic and excited about the transformative opportunities his research is making possible.
‘I am confident that renewable energy supply on demand will happen, in particular with the help of PEI, which is a comprehensive platform for people to share resources,’ he says. The impact of our research on society is profound. It touches everybody’s lives – it’s important to everyone – and as a society we face real challenges to deliver sustainable energy supply systems for future, which will inevitably bring fundamental changes to the scope and design of tomorrow’s smart cities. It’s this that excites and fascinates me.’
• Professor Xiao-Ping Zhang delivered his inaugural lecture in February 2015.