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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Ronnie Belmans

IEEE Fellow, Dr. Ronnie Belmans is a full professor at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium, co-founder of the KU Leuven Energy Institute of the European Energy Institute, and chairman of the European Smart Grid Technology Platform.

IEEE Fellow, Dr. Ronnie Belmans is deeply ingrained in the Smart Grid arena. As a full professor at the Katholieke Universiteit (KU) Leuven in Belgium where he teaches electric power and energy systems, co-founder of the KU Leuven Energy Institute of the European Energy Institute, and chairman of the European Smart Grid Technology Platform, he is recognized as a leading authority on smart grid. In this interview as part of the IEEE Smart Grid Experts video series, Ronnie talks about the smart grid evolution—with revolutionary results.



As a professional, I am teaching the subject at university for a group of roughly 50 master students per year, trying to raise also 10 to 12 Ph.D. students. At the one hand, and at the other hand, I'm the Honorary Chairman of ELIA, the transmission system operator in Belgium. I try to combine in my professional work the research and teaching together with the practical industrial applications.

My research area is within the framework of grids, smart grids, the deployment of all the new grid technologies and their integration with new resources and the demand in electricity.


The smart grid concept has been started in 2006 as officially by the smart grids Technology Platform in Europe, and at that time it was the development of a fourth vision. The grid itself has always been smart, has always tried to cover the energy demand in a smart way. But the introduction of new technologies and the strive for more renewables require different attitude to the grid and that's, in general terms, called smart grids.


A lot of people are talking about these days about the smart grids revolution. I'm pretty sure that when we look back within 10 or 15 years to what has happened, we will have seen that there has been a revolution happening. People producing their own electricity, people acting on the retail market, people looking for new services, that will be a revolution. It has happened but we will never notice it.

It will be an evolution because a revolution will make a break, and a break would cause trouble. It would cause disruptions and we cannot afford that. So it will be, as we see it, a kind of evolution but with revolutionary results in 10, 15 years while looking back.


I'm pretty sure it will be the case. It will be the case that there will be new technologies and new business models coming along, because it will be, for instance, that we need the ways of business models to supply electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are a mobile load for the grid. How to supply that, how to get business models, how to measure data that is on the route that will be totally different, you will see people handling with flexibility. You change your load at home, at the moment that it is convenient for you. You offer that flexibility to a flexibility provider. That will be all new things that will happen automatically. Like in the ICT, we now book our flight via a website and don't go to a travel office anymore, so you will see similar things.

But also like the Internet, it does not happen by tomorrow. If we look back, we now see that we do an awful lot of things over the Internet more and more, but we are not pushed into that immediately. It is a gentle evolution, and the same will happen with the overall electricity system.

Just to give an idea of what has happened in the past, I have spent a long time, almost two years, in Canada in 1990. That was the beginning of e-mail, the start of e-mail. I could send an e-mail to five people in Belgium at that time. Now I don't send any mail anymore, any paper mail anymore, and everyone has an e-mail address. This has not happened overnight. This has taken 20 years to get there. The same will happen.

We see a revolution. Paper mail disappeared, but we have been boiling and getting there gently. That's the way it's going to happen.


The development and deployment of smart grids will certainly see surprises. Otherwise, it would be very boring. For instance, we are now talking about the data streams that are needed for having all the metering and control ready. This is not the problem. People from ICT tell me that the amount of data that we need is marginal with respect to video on demand. So it's not the amount of data. It's the reliability of data. It's the dependability of the data system. It's the dependability of the mutual interactions.

If there is no power, you don't have ICT. If you don't have ICT, there is no power. How are we going to treat those multi-dimensional networks in a safe and reliable way? This is something we did not do until now. A lot of people are saying that the technology requirements for smart grids are comparable with an airplane. Fine to say so. But an airplane on its own, if it breaks down, it remains on the ground.

A system that we are creating here is the largest human based system ever made, being the electricity grid. To handle that we will see surprises along the way, and we have to be careful that those surprises don't break the system down. We may be able to cope with them, but it will not be a non-bumpy road. There will be bumps in that road to smart grids.


To get to the smart grids deployment and the implementation, there are two major challenges. The first one is financial, how to get the money ready to install everything that we need. But in fact this has nothing to do with smart grids. Even if we would use business as usual, we will have to renovate the grid. The amount of surplus money, with respect to introducing smart grids or renovating the classical grid is not that big, but it will need more money as a whole.

The most important problem that I see, and I'm an university professor and I'm not resources, if I look at ELIA, if I look at transmission system operators, if I look at distribution system operators, the lack of skilled personnel from the basics, the bottom line electrician installing the new meters up to those who have to develop new businesses within that old system is going to hurt much more than anything else. Because raising money is something that you can do if you get a convincing argument towards the bank. But getting master students out takes five years. Getting technicians out, getting young people to be interested in technology takes an awful lot of time, and this will be, from my point of view, the key bottleneck between now and 2020.

Just to give you one example, if you look at the deployment of smart meters in a small part of the world called Flanders, here as part of Belgium, we need something around 700 to 750 technicians to install them. Where are we going to find them? I don't know. That's from my point of view something where an organization like the IEEE should really bang on the table of universities, of education ministers to say we need those people and we need them now. Otherwise, your show of renewable energy, of climate change will be stopped period.


The picture is not complex regarding finances and the public support for financing of smart grids deployment. The picture is that politicians do not . . . and it's not European, it's not American, it's not Japanese, it's all over the world. Politicians don't want to show the bill that people will get to fulfill their wishes. It's the political wish of people to have a more sustainable energy supply which has support. But having that sustainable energy supply will cost more than a classical energy supply. It's the politicians that have to explain that. There is no such thing as a free lunch, although we get a free lunch in a few minutes, but there is no such a thing like a free lunch.

The problem is it will cost money and it will be the final consumer who pays it. The final consumer wishes to pay that money because he wishes to have a sustainable energy system, and that's something we have to make clear. That's where politics have to step in and say, okay, we understand your wish. We tell you we can do it, and it will cost this amount of money. Do we go for it, yes or no? That's an honest political debate.


The IEEE has joined forces here with the European Technology Platform, and I think that both organizations really bring the technology together with a broader view. I was very happy to see that we could organize the conference we are now at for this interview with a joint venture of IEEE and the European Technology Platform.

The IEEE has to step up and really promote this new technology. The IEEE has one big advantage that it covers within its organization, as well as ICT has the power. Now, I know from the organization that it will not be easy to bring those two around one table. There's always been a kind of cat and mouse or cat and dog game. It's really the task of the IEEE president to bring them together. Otherwise it won't fly.


It's fine. It's really fine. We were able to bring together knowledge that's in Europe, confront that knowledge in a positive way with knowledge from North America, and don't say United States. I'm Canadian. That's part of my life so that's why I always say North America. If we can do that on a regular basis, that brings extra value and that's what this conference is all about and also the fact that there was not an ICT conference on smart grids or the power aspects of smart grids or the renewable energy that requires smart grids. It was from all angles and it was a very nice program.

Having the IEEE and the Technology Platform in your letterhead saying that we would like to invite you, having those two in your letterhead, seemed not to hurt to get good speakers.