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The Neilson substation, where the new Hybrid Synchronous Compensator solution has been installed. Image: SPEN.
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A rebirth for old technology: Taking a look at SPEN’s Project Phoenix

The Neilson substation, where the new Hybrid Synchronous Compensator solution has been installed. Image: SPEN.

As the UK’s energy mix becomes increasingly dominated by renewable generation, Ofgem is looking for new ways to create inertia to help stabilise the system.

In 2016, SP Energy Networks (SPEN) came up with what they view as a solution by combining two common technologies to create the new Hybrid Synchronous Compensator solution. This pairs a Synchronous Condenser with a Static Compensator (STATCOM) to create a new technology capable of maintaining system stability and supporting increases in renewable energy.

Speaking to Current±, Colin Taylor director of processes and technology at SPEN explained that “you're getting the best of both worlds- you're getting that faster, instant response but you're also getting the higher volume of responses as well, and so the innovation is getting these two technologies working together.”

Following the initial idea, SPEN worked to apply for National Grid ESO’s Network Innovation Competition (NIC) in 2017, winning financing and support to further develop what became known as Project Phoenix.

“We’re kind of reinvigorating the synchronous compensator technology, putting it together with some modern technology and getting a very unique and very innovative solution, one which has significant benefits in our modern energy system. That's where the name Phoenix came from”, Taylor continued.

Thanks to the funding from the NIC, SPEN – together with partners Hitachi ABB Power Grids, National Grid ESO, The University of Strathclyde and The Technical University of Denmark – launched its first live trial in October 2020, with the Hybrid Synchronous Compensator solution installed at the Neilston substation just outside of Glasgow, Scotland, where it will be monitored over the next 12 months.

Taylor explained that it can be easy to look at innovation based on previous technologies, and ask 'well, why hasn't anybody done this before?' but a number of elements had to fall into place for the project to come to fruition, including the funding mechanism and the partners.

In particular, the UK’s regulatory mechanism and the additional funding from the NIC helped facilitate the innovative step.

“It wasn't without risk for us or for the other parties,” said Taylor. “But it allowed us to move forward, with the risks understood. Largely, if we could make the thing work, we knew we would get funding for it.”

The ability of the project to reimagine previous technologies works heavily in its favour, with the key challenge the sophistication of the combination, according to Taylor. This helps to make the technology easily rolled out in a number of different areas and generators around the UK and beyond.

The compensators will provide dynamic voltage control, inertia and short circuit level to help manage the reduction in synchronous generation such as coal and gas plants. It is scalable, and can be rolled out in a range of varied locations, additionally working as a benefit for SPEN’s technology.

“The device we've installed at Neilston, I think it's about 140MW in total between the two elements- you quite easily get to 300MW or 400MW at one location,” explained Taylor. “One of the key innovations being the controller, you don't actually need the two elements in the same place. So you could have a rotating machine, a synchronous compensator somewhere in your network, and you can have the STATCOM somewhere else- they’re communicating with each other.

“So I think that there's a flexibility there. And there's a scalability there. And I think probably, you'll be able to scale up to higher capacities as a significant advantage compared to some of the other solutions.”

Following the 12 month trial, SPEN expects the technology to become commercially viable, with interest from National Grid in using it elsewhere. As the number of renewables in the UK continues to increase, so will the need for inertia solutions such as SPEN’s Hybrid Synchronous Compensator solution.

“So, I think it has advantages in terms of scalability, in terms of flexibility, but in reality, it's one of many tools that we will need to deploy over the years,” finished Taylor.

Editorial

Molly Lempriere Deputy Editor, Current±

Molly Lempriere is deputy editor at Solar Media, responsible for its UK-facing publications Solar Power Portal and Current±.

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