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Technology Perspective

Smart Energy

Saudi scientists are developing new technologies to deliver clean, reliable energy in their challenging natural environment.

19 August 2018

It’s a time of change in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Fuelled by Saudi Vision 2030 — a comprehensive plan to modernize the country, cement its position as a global powerhouse, and launch forward-thinking initiatives — researchers from KACST are striving to bring clean and sustainable energy to the kingdom’s 33 million inhabitants. The country aims to produce 9.5 billion watts of energy from renewable resources by 2023.

But this target isn’t easily achieved in a country that deals with frequent sand storms and a harsh, fluctuating weather; which is where KACST researchers come in.

A significant part of this research effort, and Saudi Vision 2030, involves mining the country’s renewable energy resources. In addition to its wealth of oil, Saudi Arabia also has huge potential in solar and wind energy. Bringing these resources to bear, however, requires a next-generation power grid; one that KACST researchers, alongside their country’s national energy supplier, the Saudi Electricity Company (SEC), are in the process of creating. 

A unique landscape

Developing a truly modern electricity infrastructure within the kingdom is not as simple as taking technology from other countries and bolting them on to Saudi Arabia, says Ayman Alabduljabbar, manager of KACST’s National Center for Electrical Energy Systems Technology. “What we’re providing isn’t just equipment, but Saudi scientists are developing new technologies to deliver clean, reliable energy in their challenging natural environment.full solutions,” he says, adding that Saudi Arabia’s desert environment provides a unique set of challenges for the development of a modern power grid. “We have to consider our harsh environment, including temperature and dust.”

The effective and safe utilization of renewables comes with its own caveats. As the flow of energy from photovoltaic or wind farms is highly affected by fluctuating weather patterns, cloud coverage or sandstorms, the voltage at the interface of these power plants fluctuates too, which could potentially damage household appliances.

To address this, KACST and SEC have developed two systems that can be installed at the point of common coupling where renewable energy farms connect to the grid. Static VAR compensation (SVC) and static compensation (STATCOM) systems absorb or/and generate reactive power in response to instabilities, mitigating voltage abnormalities. These systems are significantly useful during the hot Saudi summers, when long overhead lines that supply remote areas can undergo severe voltage drops due to the widespread use of air conditioning, risking damage to equipment.

The systems share similar benefits but differ in terms of cost and performance, offering economic flexibility and high performance where it’s needed. While STATCOM is still a work-in-progress, with the first two units aimed for installation in December 2019, two SVC units are currently in use in Saudi Arabia. KACST is surveying new locations to install more in collaboration with SEC. 

To understand which sectors of the network need systems like SVC and STATCOM, part of the smart grid program involves installing monitoring systems within electrical substations and along the overhead lines. These systems include advanced power quality devices, another homegrown smart grid technology that is able to monitor and detect electrical abnormalities in the network.

Smart monitoring of power grids gives SEC the ability to detect stressed parts of the infrastructure. This enables the company to intelligently plan upgrades and expansions, rather than blindly spending money and resources where they might not be needed.

Another emerging part of Saudi Arabia’s power infrastructure involves monitoring systems for ground-based transformers—a street-level infrastructure that forms the last step of power transformation before it reaches the customer. Developed by KACST, the ‘ground-mounted transformer measurement system’ is the only one of its kind in Saudi Arabia. Local measurement brings the SEC closer to fully understanding the flow of its electricity from generation to customer and will become increasingly important as the kingdom increases its number of local solar panel installations. KACST reports that prototypes installed at two locations have provided exceptional performance, and Alabduljabbar adds that a major pilot project is now underway to install 400 more units.

Effective monitoring of the power grid will result in a more stable connection for customers by detecting abnormalities, flagging them to operators, and also improving the level of automation so that human input becomes increasingly obsolete. “We will increase the reliability of the service, and we will enhance the quality of the supply,” says Alabduljabbar. The currently installed SVC systems have already given Saudis, living in that areas, a significant boost to their quality of life, he says. “People have started investing in their lives, buying new homes and new equipment, because they’re more confident it won’t be damaged.”

Alabduljabbar says that improving his country’s infrastructure involves more than infrastructure and pumping out new devices. “The most exciting thing for me is that we’re growing as a team,” he says. “If you compare our performance 10 years ago to now, you’ll see a difference in the quality of work and the challenges we’re taking. Everything has improved. We have many more reliable and creative engineers.”

Forward thinking

Further development of this team is now one of their biggest challenges. As the solutions become more advanced, a greater level of interdisciplinary focus becomes paramount for success. Alabduljabbar says that computer scientists and communications experts now work with power systems engineers, and that extending capacity necessitates “a culture of teamwork.”

Like most research groups, the biggest challenge facing KACST’s smart grid developments is continued funding. Alabduljabbar laments that capital investment is an issue and that long-term plans depend on it.

As a showcase of KACST and SEC’s commitment to renewable energy and prowess for resourcefulness, the organizations installed a mini solar farm on the roof of Riyadh’s Al-Hikmah Mosque this year, a rather unusual placement. Alabduljabbar explains, however, that mosques pay the utility a high tariff for energy, making self-generation an attractive prospect. Mosques are also present in every residential area in Saudi Arabia and have large, suitable rooftops for solar farm installation.

Mosques also have highly predictable energy consumption patterns and use energy for only short periods a day. The rest of the time, the panels can collect energy, give it back to the grid, and in return, mosques such as Al-Hikmah can receive the same amount of energy from the grid for free later. Alabduljabbar says the project has been so successful that Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs is offering the opportunity to more mosques.

In the next stages of the KACST–SEC collaboration, SEC intends to build a next-generation facility, called the ‘concept grid lab,’ within KACST’s Solar Village. Currently in the design phase, the next-gen smart grid lab will open SEC’s doors to collaboration and provide a test bed for new technologies. “This lab will be different. Rather than just testing your equipment in a lab environment, you’ll be able to test it under real conditions,” says Alabduljabbar.

In January 2019, new studies will investigate the potential impacts of electric vehicles and storage on Saudi Arabia’s distribution power grid.