When brutal ice storms pounded the southern provinces of China in January 2008, over 223,000 homes were destroyed and widespread power outages reported across seventeen of China's thirty-one provinces. Even the skyscrapers of Shanghai darkened for days.
And yet in some places a full-scale collapse in the electricity grid was averted - thanks to smart technology, and new ways of thinking about old systems.
So when blizzards destroyed the transmission pylons of the China Southern Power Grid (CSG) - severing the optical fibers and 500 kV electricity cables - this would previously have knocked out power across CSG's networks in Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Hainan provinces.
And yet CSG had installed smart backup systems on top of their old power grids - in this case, an optical Synchronous Digital Hierarchy (SDH) ring-network. As a consequence, the dispatch communication system never failed - and power to over 230 million people was maintained.
But the incident also shone a light on a quiet revolution that has been sparked in the energy sector over the last five years.
Cutting edge smart technology is now being bolted onto old systems to futureproof our electricity supply - and create what is now called the "Energy Internet".
First coined by the economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin, the Energy Internet refers to a radical rethink on how we produce, distribute and store power in the modern world. Where processes that power the communications internet - distributive, collaborative and peer-to-peer interactions - are applied to power networks.
Ultimately, this will mean your dishwasher will recognise when power is clean and cheapest, and switch on. Suppliers will know to turn off biogas plants in one state when the sun starts shining in another. And everything from coastal windfarms to domestic solar panels will form part of new, continent-wide grids of production and storage.
But the Energy Internet also helps the older players of the energy sector interact and co-exist with today's greener, more disparate energy generators. By enhancing grids that are up to 60 years old with new smart technology, power supply can be decentralized, more efficient and reliable.
Spearheading this transition is global information and communications technology specialists Huawei. Already, the company is helping turn old power grids themselves into agile communication systems - enabling data and complex interactions to flow between grids, power utilities, and consumers. Their Automatically Switched Optical Network (ASON), for example, is able to withstand extreme conditions and even multiple lightning strikes - so that if one link fails, the system can reroute within 50 ms to ensure secure and reliable communications across the smart grid. It is currently being used as far afield as Dusseldorf, Germany (for the E.ON energy supplier), and the South Korean Electric Power Corporation KEPCO.
And after learning the lessons of the 2008 storms, there was an increasing demand for more efficient power monitoring and management in electric power distribution. In 2011, the China Southern Power Grid began piloting a new wireless broadband system in part of Zhuhai that uses the high speed data standard LTE to automate distribution, emergency communication and real-time monitoring.
And so by enhancing and augmenting with new technology, these old networks become "smart grids" - with the capacity to reap the rewards of the exponential rise in smart electricity meters. Nearly 210 million units were installed worldwide by the end of 2014, but this is expected to rise to 780 million by 2020, largely driven by a mass rollout in China.
Such penetration allows energy suppliers to bi-directionally transmit and distribute electricity more efficiently and reliably - but bill more accurately too. In Nigeria, for example - where older electricity meters were both unreliable and easy to bypass - the installation of Huawei's Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) lead to a 300% increase of subscribers under accurate automatic metering.
But the data flowing from the smart grid poses its own problems. In China, for example, several hundred million smart electric meters collect data once every 15 minutes, resulting in terabytes of information every day. As Youshi Xu of Huawei's Electric Power Solutions Department admits, "That poses a serious challenge to system operations in the areas of relevant analytics - a needle-in the haystack problem."
Consequently, Huawei is also helping create the cloud data center architecture capable of analysing the Big Data produced - so it can be used to manage demand, make energy savings and reduce greenhouse emissions. Systems like this are already being used by the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) and Saudi Electricity Company (SEC). "By using these, it means the relevant 'needles' can be found," says Youshi Xu, "and geographically distributed resources can be integrated and automated."
And yet the Energy Internet is only in its infancy. The Chinese National Energy Administration will spend USD 314 billion upgrading the power distribution network between 2015 and 2020. While the European Union's Third Energy Package aims to achieve eighty percent smart meter penetration by 2020. As Huawei's Chief Scientist Sanqi Li says, this is only the beginning:
"Every business will become a digital business in the new digital world."
Huawei AMI Solution makes power grid more efficient.
Traditionally electric power companies have always read meters manually. But this is prone to human error and often results in inaccurate data, long payback periods, and ineffective monitoring of line loss or electricity theft. So Huawei came up with a solution. Using bi-directional, high-speed communications, Huawei developed an effective AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) system based on Hi-PLC technology which takes only three seconds to read a meter with a 100% daily success rate. This allows power companies to charge in real-time, detect electricity theft and conduct statistical analysis on line loss, so they can trim costs and work more efficiently.
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