CIGRE President Michel Augonnet in Chamonix

The past, present and future of electricity

CIGRE President Michel Augonnet on the electric grid

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Council on Large Electric Systems (CIGRE), a conversation with Michel Augonnet on the future of the industry, and the role of the transmission operator.

By Bill Hinchberger

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This would normally be time for the Paris Session, the confab of the Council on Large Electric Systems (CIGRE, its well-known acronym in French) that usually attracts 3,600 professionals from around the globe to the French capital every two years. CIGRE is marking its 100th birthday, but the celebration has been dampened by the COVID crisis. A skeleton crew will run online sessions from a local television studio. This represents the first hiatus in the physical Paris Session since World War II.

 

Partly to get a line on the virtual conference, we chased down CIGRE President Michel Augonnet in Chamonix, a resort town in eastern France that is home to his wife`s family on the eve of the event. A former top executive for companies such as Alstom, Augonnet now runs his own consulting firm called MVAconnect. He is also President of Supergrid Institute an HV research laboratory in Lyon, France. Below is a version of our conversation, in which we discuss everything from his organization and its history to the future of the industry.

A hundred years of CIGRE – what, in your view, are the biggest achievements?

I think the biggest achievement is to be to viewed as a reference point for knowledge creation in the electrical engineering industry. That knowledge is often transformed into standards, which are picked up by the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) and others. Today, we are trying to increase our presence in Africa. We have created new national committees, and sometimes, regional ones. The idea is to share knowledge with developing countries, bringing people together and sharing. I think that's enormous. By definition, CIGRE is apolitical. It produces what we call unbiased reports. You have to be extremely careful that they are not commercially or nationally influenced.

How would you say that energy production and distribution have changed over the last century?

There are changes in technology and those linked to organization. The changes linked to organization are probably the most striking. I would go back to former US President Ronald Reagan and deregulation – splitting generation from distribution. This was a very vertically organized industry, both technically and market-wise. That change created a market that had never existed before. He created interfaces that had to be managed. It caused a lot of people to rethink the way that they were working.

 

Perhaps more important now is decentralized generation. A consumer can also be a producer. The network used to be supplied from large power plants to consumers. Now it can also be supplied from the consumer. This is radical. You could imagine power supplied through the distribution network and not through large generation. To me, this is the most dramatic change because it creates issues for network stability. The first role of a transmission operator is to bring stability. Now the system becomes more complex.

“Electricity is indispensable for our lives and our security.”
CIGRE President Michel Augonnet

How about the next 100 years?

I don't know that I can speak about 100 years, I wouldn`t do that, but there is one big debate, speaking for myself and not on behalf of CIGRE. That is the future of nuclear. I am convinced that we need nuclear because it plays two roles. Nuclear brings stability to the network it is an ideal complement to renewable generation guaranteeing a base. And we know that nuclear doesn't produce CO2. The question is political. If you look forward, fusion nuclear reactors with limited waste could also be a strong contributor to the Hydrogen industry.

 

End users must be monitored for them to be both consumers and reserves for load management - to manage demand at a very low level. Distributors and Transmission System Operators (TSOs) must cooperate closely. It's technically possible, but regulators have to accept it. With today’s sensors, you can gather information. But you also need to send it back. If you want to switch someone off, you have to send an order. Your system has to be a two-way street.

Four Milestones Siemens Energy presented at CIGRE

How do you see the future of large electrical systems?

They will stay. Their role will change. Large electrical systems still have a major role to maintain the stability of the network. Systems today are now organized nationally. Mainly in Europe, but not only there, people are promoting ways to make the best use of our resources with additional physical exchanges between countries. At one stage it was 10%, 20%. We're now talking about power hubs in the North Sea to economically collect energy from wind generation with good reliability.

 

There is also the possibility of connecting continents with HVDC. We have the technology. The Chinese have installed connections of 1.1 million volts and 12 GW. It is possible to transmit over large areas. We can take advantage of the fact that the sun doesn’t shine everywhere at the same time or that people typically don’t use energy in the same ways. We need to consider the political hurdle separately, but technically it is possible.

What would be your ideal vision of a grid in the future?

Clearly it would be CO2-free and economically viable, so that electricity is available to all. I think a billion people don't have reliable electricity. It would probably be much more decentralized and interconnected, and obviously 100% reliable. We're used to having phones that are not reliable, but we're not used to being locked in an elevator. Electricity is indispensable for our lives and our security.

August 24, 2021

 

Bill Hinchberger is a Paris-based independent journalist and a former international correspondent for The Financial Times, Business Week and other media.

 

Combined picture and video credits: Jordi Ruiz Cirera

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