The proportion of coal in the energy mix is diminishing, while renewables are steadily growing in importance. This is confronting grid operators with challenges, though. If the sun is shining in a clear blue sky and a fresh breeze is blowing, solar modules and wind turbines generate more power than is needed. If, however, the sky is overcast and the wind is still, power becomes a scarce commodity. How can such production fluctuations be stabilized to ensure a stable energy supply, despite the growing number of volatile power sources?
Flexibly adapting production processes to the energy situation
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation IFF in Magdeburg see a solution among small and medium-sized businesses, which generate power themselves from sun, wind or even their own manufacturing waste. They will become more active stakeholders in the future smart grid, helping to make it more reliable and more stable. Achieving this goal entails designing internal energy-relevant industrial processes to be demand-responsive, managing controllable loads dynamically, generating renewable energy, and using energy storage systems. “We are developing new solutions and applications together with Mageburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences and other partners in the European project RELflex. They are primarily intended to help make manufacturing processes in SMBs more demandresponsive,” explains Dr. Pio Lombardi, RELflex project manager at the Fraunhofer IFF. “That means businesses can adapt their manufacturing processes to the actual energy situation, fall back on energy from their storage systems during bottlenecks, and possibly even use other energy sources such as incinerated wood waste.” The heart of the development is the XDEMS dynamic energy management system.
Prototype field test
The researchers are currently exploring how this energy management system can be utilized in the everyday business routine at one of their project partners, aRTE Möbel GmbH. One benefit is that it enables companies to utilize the energy they generate with photovoltaics and the like for their own manufacturing processes, thus becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on grid operators. This has an impact on business models as well. The bar can be raised higher for green products, which can be made not only out of organically produced materials but also with green energy.
SMBs can respond to the fluctuating energy supply in different ways. “Adapting manufacturing and installing backup storage systems would be the most efficient way. Whenever a lot of energy is available, items are made to stock and warehoused,” says Lombardi, putting it concretely. The second option would be to let employees work flexibly, for instance, at later hours or even on weekends, based on the energy situation. The researchers intend to gauge the acceptance of this idea in a corresponding survey. Energy storage systems are a potential third option. They remain expensive, though, because of the high capital expenditures, and energy storage still entails losses, depending on the technology.