Open Source

Researchers Crowdsource Creation of Worldwide Map of Power Grid

Researchers at the Technical University of Munich are crowdsourcing collection of data related to the world's power grid and freely sharing the results with others. The importance of the project is to provide a planning tool that will be useful as the world converts more broadly to renewable forms of energy in the face of climate change.

OpenGridMap, as it's called, uses volunteers armed with an app on their smartphones to capture photos and location information related to the electrical infrastructure — high-voltage and low-voltage power lines, transformer substations, wind turbines and solar power plants.

That data is shuttled to a server in the Department of Computer Science at TU Munich, where it helps build out a map of electric power grids worldwide.

"You can only plan the restructuring of the energy supply if you know exactly where power lines are located and at which locations power from high-voltage lines is transformed and fed into the low-voltage networks," said Hans-Arno Jacobsen, a professor and director of the Department of Energy Informatics and Middleware at TU Munich, in a prepared statement.

Armed with that data, researchers and others can simulate the feeding of renewable energy into the grid and model the effects. It can also help define where the bottlenecks or surplus capacity could arise in order to prioritize development of power storage facilities.

"Of course every power utility knows its own grids, but there are many power companies, but very few open their data to the public. This is compounded in emerging markets by the fact that the information is frequently not even digitized," added Jose Rivera, director of the project. "Contracting a company to compile the infrastructure for an entire country, or even the entire world would not be affordable for the researchers."

The research team didn't start from scratch. Over the last decade a community of volunteers has apparently been collecting data — including information about electrical power grids — for the Wiki global map, OpenStreetMap. "However, they are neither complete nor verified," said Rivera. "And that is precisely what we are now hoping to change."

Earlier this year Rivera published the OpenGridMap an app on the Google Play store that gives users a simple way to take pictures of different devices related to power and upload them to the platform.

The team is also looking into other ways to collect data, such as by the use of "hobby" drones.

As the data is verified, it's added to an online map that's constantly updated and made publicly available to engineers, scientists and others with an interest. "There are many potential applications for the OpenGridMap," Jacobsen noted. "You could investigate the feasibility of making a state like Bavaria energy-autonomous." And someone attempting to improve the infrastructure a developing or emerging country could easily recognize how far a given town is removed from the nearest power line.

Among the supporters of the project are Siemens, the World Bank, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research and the Alexander v. Humboldt Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at dian@dischaffhauser.com or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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