Smart Grids: The genesis of networks

One of the major challenges of the energy transition is to reinvent the current electrical networks to make them more intelligent. Eventually, these Smart Grids will integrate renewable energies and connect consumers, who will become energy producers themselves! But you can’t revolutionize a centuries-old model and its technical infrastructure overnight. In this first article in our series on Smart Grids, we take a look back at the genesis of electricity networks at the end of the 19th century. A necessary flashback to better understand the path taken…

 

In most developed countries, the architecture of electrical networks is based on a vertical top-down model. Their purpose is to carry electricity produced by a limited number of large production units, the power plants, to the consumers. The foundations of these networks were laid towards the end of the 19th century, in the wake of the discovery of electricity. As cities in the United States grew and skyscrapers multiplied, Thomas Edison argued vigorously for electricity to be installed in all buildings. He also advocated for shared production in large units to reduce costs and facilitate the distribution of electricity.

 

New York, city of light…

The great inventor put his vision into practice. In 1882, he created his own electricity company to supply New York City, which then had 85 customers for a total of 400 light bulbs! This centralized model was then imposed throughout the world. One of the main promoters of this approach was Edison’s former personal secretary, Samuel Insull, who, at the head of his company, built the world’s largest power station in Chicago, the “Harrison Street Station”. By 1920, the Insull Company was supplying electricity to 32 U.S. states and advocating that the supply of electricity be recognized by the government as a natural monopoly, allowed to develop without competition. These pioneers thus founded the model of the large integrated operator, capable of producing, transporting and distributing electricity, of which EDF was for a long time the paragon in France.

 

The end of the great monopolies

From the 1970s onwards, the arrival in power of liberal governments, particularly in Great Britain and the United States, gradually led to the questioning of this centralized model. In an effort to put an end to monopolies and to stimulate competition, some governments began to privatize their historical companies. At the same time, production, transmission and distribution activities were separated. This is, for example, the situation that prevails in France. While EDF remains the main producer, it is now RTE that is in charge of high-voltage transmission and Enedis of the medium and low-voltage network. In the early 2000s, a new major technological breakthrough occurred: the digital revolution and the explosion of the Internet, which spread very quickly to all areas of life and the economy, including energy. This has paved the way for a network architecture where the end consumer can operate in both “upload” and “download” mode, i.e. he can behave as a simple consumer or as a producer, injecting his surplus energy into the network. This is the emergence of the smart grid concept, which will be discussed in the following articles.

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