Tackling grid loss

Grid loss is an issue affecting all electric grid systems all over the world, be it transportation, distribution or user grid. The challenge is to monitor, predict and manage the power losses arising from the normal grid operation.

Grid losses take place throughout the electric system and must be addressed through a comprehensive set of actions, agreed between the grid operators, regulators and consumers.

While many grid losses have technical root causes and may be solved through a comprehensive and sensitive investment policy, significant scale results may be seen in the loss reduction by addressing more efficiently fraudulent consumption (i.e. energy thefts) by some grid clients. Below is described in more detail this additional, non-technical cause, along with the most common technical causes of grid losses.

Technically, grid loss is caused first by overheating of power transformers and power lines on currents passing through, and second by excessive grid reactive power. Several additional causes to technical grid losses can be identified, yet those mentioned above are amongst the most active in the Romanian grids.

Grid loss from overheating of power transformers and grid lines is a matter of investment management and agreement between the grid operators and the regulator. It is in process of being addressed through a combination of actions by the stakeholders.

Reducing such grid losses require accurate, up-to-date grid diagnosis and grid investment, at a pace consistent with the ability of the grid to assimilate such investment, and of the consumers to ultimately pay for it.

The Romanian energy regulator ANRE has enacted limits to the level of investment that are to be recognized throughout a regulatory cycle. Decision-makers agree that security of supply and optimum operation standards (SAIFI, SAIDI) need a consistent approach. Nevertheless, a long road lies ahead up to thorough cutting through all details of the process.

Management of excessive reactive power is essential to contain grid losses. The existence of excessive reactive power is generically called “overcompensation of the Romanian Energy Market Monitor system.” It consists in the generation of a reactive flow of electrons, whose oscillation plane adversely interferes with the mainstream currents, such as their circulation in the system affects the grid’s total active power.

Reactive power is often useful for an electrical circuit to have, since it generates positive, regulating effects for many industrial power applications. While real or active power is the energy supplied to run a motor, heat a home, or illuminate an electric light bulb, reactive power provides the important function of regulating the voltage, thereby helping to move power effectively through the utility grid and transmission lines to where it is required by the load. Therefore, effective monitoring and management of reactive power can importantly reduce grid loss.

Meanwhile, however, excessive reactive power may lead to increased drops of power along the transmission or distribution lines, cause excess heating and grid losses, and excessive variation of voltage to the end consumer, with negative effects over receptors. Therefore it is always useful to reduce the free circulation of excessive reactive power in order to improve system efficiency.

One way to avoid reactive power overcharges is to install power factor correction capacitors. Normally, residential customers are charged only for the active power consumed, because nearly all residential and single-phase power factor values are essentially the same, due to power factor correction capacitors built into most domestic appliances by the manufacturer.

Industrial customers, on the other hand, which use 3-phase supplies have widely different power factors, and for this reason, the grid operators may have to take them into account. The industrial customers would generate costs to the grid operators if their power factor drops below a prescribed value. It costs the grid operators more to supply industrial customers since larger conductors, larger transformers, larger switchgear, etc. are required to handle the larger active and reactive currents.

Investment management is, again, key to the investment decision and recognition in tariffs. The reactive energy management solutions lie at the edge of technology innovation and are fully worth of ANRE’s special attention.

An additional cause for grid loss in Romania is the high amount of energy fraudulently consumed by some users. This is a non-technical cause that involves residential and business clients of the grid, being a widespread reality in the entire country. Fraudulent consumption takes place through various methods, from meter bypassing to tempering, to not using any meter at all.

Several legal means, combined with regulatory requirements, are used to address this phenomenon, but results of significant scale are slow to appear. The root causes lie in the fact that this is a relatively new type of crime, and the legal criminal and procedural regime simply has not yet developed the most efficient ways to address it in a due process. Thus, there are no special rules facilitating the discovery of fraudulent consumption, such as efficient access to private properties to monitor the meter sites, or possibility of disconnection based on a strong fraudulent indication (such as, the consumer being caught in the  action of illegal connection or meter tampering).

The criminal pursuit of such crimes is also difficult and burdensome, since it is in many instances subject to rules governing the pursuit of theft of any other commodity, with very little differentiation to facilitate the work of the magistrates. However, several proposals of improvement have been brought forward, including some institutional roadmaps for legislation improvement, with the expectation that the regulatory and legal framework will align and be more effective against energy theft.

Grid losses are a systemic set of issues and require a systemic set of solutions. As briefly described above, an appropriate amount of investment by the grid operators is needed in order to optimize the grid loss and keep it under control, coupled with an appropriate policy on tariff formulation, and operational standard requirements by ANRE. However, there is a delicate balance to be achieved between the amount of investment required and the ability of the grid and final consumers to absorb it. The complexity thereof cannot be underestimated anywhere in the world.

Any approach that tends to address the grid partially is likely to fail on the medium- to long-run. Grid losses are a matter of grid stability and therefore a matter of national priority. Every country in the world would want to include this matter amongst its critical governance topics and address it through its policies and stakeholders’ actions. Such actions should be directed towards managing grid losses as part of an articulated policy on energy efficiency, including the possibility for the operators to integrate smart metering, smart grid solutions, digitalization and big data analytics. This should be pursued accross the regulatory cycles. In this respect, energy efficiency is energy security.

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