© Fraunhofer IFF

Sustainable power supply in rural areas

According to the Federal Government, 90 percent of Germany’s territory is rural. About 44 million people live in rural areas, which is more than half of the population. This applies to the whole of Europe: the majority of the population does not live in urban centres. Peace, nature, affordable rents – these are the advantages of country life. But the idyll also has its dark sides, such as the inadequate energy supply infrastructure, the expansion of which has been neglected in recent decades. Sometimes rural regions in Europe are only supplied with electricity via a single line, networks are outdated. The increase in electricity consumption is compounding the problem. As a result, supply bottlenecks can occur time and again.

The partners in the RIGRID project, which stands for Rural Intelligent Grid, are working towards a safe, reliable, cost-effective and at the same time ecological power supply in rural areas. They see the future in the expansion of renewable energy and the development of decentralized, intelligent supply networks – so-called smart grids – which enable the integration of small energy producers into the supply network and greater independence from centralized energy supply structures. In the RIGRD project, such a regional, intelligent energy supply network and management system was developed and exemplarily tested in the Polish city of Puńsk and in the municipality of Dardesheim in the Harz region in Saxony-Anhalt. With this new tool, new energy infrastructures and supply systems in rural areas can be optimally planned, established and operated. In addition to the Fraunhofer IFF, partners in the completed project were Harz-Regenerativ-Druiberg e.V. and RegenerativKraftwerke Harz RKWH GmbH.

Security of supply in rural regions

“Among other things, smart grids help coordinate the fluctuating supply of electricity from renewable sources,” says Prof. Przemyslaw Komarnicki, researcher at the Fraunhofer IFF and head of the Department of Electrical Energy Systems and Infrastructures ESI. Together with his team, he developed the virtual-interactive energy infrastructure design tool as project coordinator. For the pilot microgrid in Puńsk, the researchers have set up a small demonstration grid on site, comprising the local wastewater treatment plant, a photovoltaic system and a battery storage system. With it, they were able to test live how their system works and whether or how it is accepted by the population.

The user-friendly planning tool takes the 3D spatial data of the affected areas including buildings and transfers them into a virtual scenario. It is intended to enable local operators and residents to interactively and individually plan their energy supply system and the infrastructure required for it. “Specifically, users could calculate and view the costs,carbon footprint, and dependence on the public utility grid if, for example, a PV system were installed on every rooftop in the city of Puńsk. Of course, any other model calculations are also conceivable,” says the engineer, explaining one application scenario. How would additional wind turbines affect the supply situation, what consequences would the expansion of electromobility have for public transport? All these aspects can be taken into account. The software takes into account not only technical and economic factors, but also socio-economic factors as well as environmental and urban planning aspects. “How many jobs can be created by sustainable energy supply systems in a small community? How does our town/community look afterwards, or do we accept the structural changes, for example through new wind turbines? Our planning tool also answers such questions,” says Komarnicki, explaining the platform’s unique selling point. It is important that the regional technical, economic and social conditions on site are included in the planning and implementation. Only in this way can the energy transformation process succeed. In Puńsk, this process was successful: not only was energy efficiency increased andCO2 emissions reduced. After initial scepticism, the system has also convinced the residents.

Freedom of decision lies with the municipalities

The interactive planning tool comprises three modules: With the virtual 3D visualization module, new investments can be checked with regard to the availability of renewable energy sources. The economic module makes it possible to evaluate the profitability of investments, taking into account potential technologies, local environmental factors, and consumption and geographic data. The technical module completes the software. This can be used to create concepts for low-voltage and medium-voltage microgrids and their components.

The planning system leaves it up to communities to decide what they value in their energy supply and how self-sufficient they want to be from external power. Depending on whether they want as much of their own solar power as possible or an alternative energy mix with external suppliers, the system suggests the optimal strategy to ensure a stable energy supply.

The tool enables small communities to contribute to the energy transition. “A lot has already happened in model regions like Saxony-Anhalt. Renewable energy is already being used intensively here. But other regions are only slowly approaching the aspect of sustainable energy supply. Our interactive planning platform helps them become self-sufficient in green power,” says the researcher.