World Engineering Day celebrates heroes of innovation

Engineers have been changing the world since history began. And they are being celebrated on March 4th during UNESCO’s World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development.

“If you want to change the world for the better, become an engineer", says UNESCO. That is truer than ever in the field of electrical power – unarguably the most important technology in the race to decarbonise human activity and deliver a sustainable future.

We need engineers to deliver electricity from zero carbon sources. And just as importantly, we need them to modernise our transmission and distribution systems, to deal with unprecedented changes in the way electricity is generated and used. It needs radical thinking and innovation – which is what engineers have always brought to the table.

Take Dr Sebastian Ziani de Ferranti, the Liverpool-born engineer who created the first truly modern power station and distribution system, in Deptford, London. He designed the building, the generating plant and the distribution system. In 1890, it began supplying high-voltage AC power at 10,000 volts, which was transformed to a lower voltage for consumers – the model for transmission and distribution worldwide ever since.

Dr Ferranti’s name lives on in Ferranti Tapchangers, which has been part of our company Fundamentals since 2017. We maintain, refurbish and update thousands of tapchanger units from multiple manufacturers, which have been, and will continue to be, an essential part of the grid for decades.

Tapchangers are among millions of bits of engineering that make up electricity grids globally, representing trillions of pounds of investment. The world cannot afford to replace its transmission and distribution systems totally – nor should it. We need to build on what we have, using innovative engineering as well as intelligent investment to do things differently.

So how can engineers adapt a grid model created 132 years ago, to a dramatically different landscape of supply and demand?

Taking control

Controlling voltages has always been an issue for grids – and is becoming ever more acute as patterns of generation and demand are changing rapidly. It is a climate change issue because poorly controlled voltage levels cause excessive power consumption and damage machinery. Grids which were designed around large, centralised power stations also need to be adapted to make it easy to connect all sorts of renewable generation and energy storage systems to them.

Fundamentals entered the voltage control field in 1985, when co-founders Nick Hiscock and Chris Goodfellow solved the problem of how to balance two transformers in parallel, of a type which are standard in every high voltage substation.

Working in a garage, they applied ‘fundamental principles of engineering’ to come up with a solution – hence the name of our company. The SuperTAPP unit they created is now used widely across the industry and has spawned a continuously expanding range of innovations in Automatic Voltage Control (AVC).

The basic need to control voltages has remained unchanged since Nick and Chris’ breakthough 37 years ago. What has changed is the numerous factors which cause voltages to fluctuate: from wildly varying inputs from solar and wind generation, as the weather changes, to massive increases in demand from electric vehicle (EV) charging, to strains on rural grids that were never designed to serve modern all-electric homes. 

Cracking digital comms

Next problem: how to enable the millions of pieces of equipment which make up the grid to communicate with each other, so they can be managed more efficiently, adapt to change and work with minimum carbon impact. The scale of the challenge is immense, with a combination of older ‘dumb’ machinery and modern digital equipment, built with multiple protocols and communications systems, if any. All of these need to be integrated as parts of the Internet of Things (IoT).

One of the answers we have developed is the CUBE Controller SGC 30, a black box digital signal translator for grids. Attach it to virtually any type of grid equipment and it translates its ‘language’ into a form that is universally understandable, so previously standalone machinery can be integrated with smart grids and automated.

Automation of grid management is increasingly deploying artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing, not least in the field of EV charging. With around 11 million plug in EVs expected in the UK by 2030, it is vital for grid operators to have the ability to monitor and predict EV charging, and respond to rapid spikes in demand. We have developed a solution which precisely identifies where, when and at what power levels EVs are plugged in, in real time. The system automatically adjusts voltages on the grid. It also uses an artificial intelligence algorithm to learn about customer behaviour, becoming more intelligent in its ability to respond with each measurement.

Join the revolution

The good news is that we do not need to rebuild the existing grid entirely, for us to transition to clean electricity and achieve net zero carbon – even if we could afford it. Yes, we will need new infrastructure in some parts. But a major part of the challenge is maintaining and updating what we already have, with smarter communications and controls to make it work better. Revolutionary innovation plus intelligent investment.

So - we need the best of the best to join us in the fields of AI, IT, electronic, electrical and mechanical engineering, to deliver the innovations which will truly change the world for the better. Because this is the most exciting time to be part of the electricity industry since the days of Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla. Oh, and Dr Sebastian de Ferranti, of course.