Every decade has its own challenges. The Italy of the 1960s was hungry for energy to support its growth in the postwar period and the challenge for the newly-founded Enel was to bring the electricity grid to every corner of the peninsula. At the dawn of the new century, our country and industry in general were instead looking towards a new type of growth: sustainable growth. There was still a need for energy, but there was also a need for intelligence in the way it was produced, consumed, and measured. These were necessary conditions for maximizing efficiency and paving the way for the integration of renewables into the grid. This intelligence required information, and the best way to gather and select information was digitalization: a process that concerned all the main productive sectors and therefore also the electricity grid, the backbone of the productive system.
The shift from analogue to digital began for Enel in 2001 with the installation of the first smart meters. Designed by the esteemed architect Michele de Lucchi and equipped with a liquid crystal display, these devices made it possible, for the first time, for energy suppliers to both read consumption and manage some contractual operations remotely. Likewise, customers were able to verify their own consumption and costs in real time, while the process for opening and concluding contracts was made significantly faster.
The first building blocks for smart grids
Smart meters were the first crucial building blocks for smart grids and Enel was to focus its efforts on their development for the entire decade, enabling Italy to play a pioneering role at the global level. A smart grid is nothing more than two networks in one: an electricity distribution grid associated with an IT network that enables communication between production plants, sorting plants and energy storage systems as well as end users who also become producers if, for example, they have a photovoltaic system on the roof of their home. Information about the quantity of energy produced and consumed by each user travels across the network as well as data concerning large-scale demand and exchange. Combined with the right algorithms, a network of this type can best manage peaks in demand, energy generated from photovoltaic and wind power or consumption linked to the use of heating and air conditioning systems.
The consumer becomes an active player in the grid
Throughout the decade, Enel worked on digitalizing the electricity grid: with new meters, with the modernization of low voltage substations, and above all with a huge effort put into research and development. Shortly after privatization, Enel Distribuzione was set up in 1999 specifically to manage this sector. In 2016 it was renamed e-distribuzione and the research conducted in the 2000s laid the groundwork for the creation in the following decades of fully-fledged smart grids. In Isernia, a few thousand customers were connected to a grid that enabled a bi-directional flow of electricity in which every consumer could also be a producer (the so-called prosumers) and the energy load could be modified in real time based on demand.
Sustainable development and social responsibility
The development of smart grids was part of a broader goal of promoting development that was truly sustainable. Within this context, in 2004 Enel joined the United Nations Global Compact, a global agreement that brought together companies committed to placing environmental sustainability and social responsibility at the center of their work. Enel subscribed to the Compact’s founding principles concerning human rights, working standards, environmental protection, and the fight against corruption. This commitment also involved a duty to inform all stakeholders each year of the progress made towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In 2011, Enel’s participation in the pact took a further leap forward with its admission to the Global Compact LEAD, a select group of companies recognized as world leaders in sustainability.
All this time the role of renewable sources was growing. At the end of the decade, Italy was in third place in Europe for new installed capacity of wind power (1,113 MW in 2009 alone) and for cumulative capacity (4,850 MW). On the photovoltaic front, the threshold of 1,000 MW installed was surpassed in 2009. According to data from Enea (the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development), in the year 2009 alone new installed capacity of photovoltaic (574 MW) far exceeded all the cumulative capacity up to the previous year. These years also saw the creation of Enel Green Power in 2008, the company that in the following decade would be a global leader guiding the development of renewables and technological innovation in the sector.
The experience acquired at the beginning of the millennium is today being made available to other electricity distribution companies all over the world by Gridspertise, the Group’s subsidiary that provides sustainable, cutting-edge solutions for modernizing technology and digitalizing grids and measuring systems. This same experience is also shaping global strategy for distribution grids with Grid Futurability®: this roadmap, backed with 60 billion euros of investments until 2030, aims to make best use of all of the existing grid infrastructure as well as technological innovation and to adapt it at the local level to build grids that are more resilient, participatory, and sustainable, capable of driving energy systems towards a zero-emissions future.