There are certain buzzwords in the energy industry at the moment, all driven by the challenges presented by increasing levels of renewable energy.
- Micro-grids – the concept of designing a neighbourhood scale system that can power itself self-sufficiently through adequate local generation, energy storage and load management.
- Storage – although this can take many forms, the industry is obsessed with batteries and there is much discussion about different chemistry, proper battery management for optimal life and the opportunities from the electric vehicle industry through second-life use for grid support. I was surprised that hydrogen re-surfaced in various forms as an energy storage medium and fuels that can be generated from surplus electricity will continue to generate interest.
- Self consumption – To make the most of surplus solar power, the industry is focused on technologies such as battery storage in order for the household to use its own solar energy and have less impact on the electricity grid.
- Flexibility – The discussion often uses the concept of flexibility to explain how supplies from sources such as solar and wind can be matched to load patterns. Flexible supplies and loads should have higher value on the market.
- Integration – Transport and Heat can increasingly be supplied by electricity. An integrated understanding that accounts for all three elements – electricity, transport and heat is needed. It transforms the way we understand the transition of our electricity systems.
- Heat pumps – In Australia many of us already use airconditioning systems to produce winter heating. In the countries I visited this is far less common and a variety of fuels provide heat including fuel oil, gas and district heating. Using electricity to generate heat would have been considered expensive, crazy and high carbon in the past so there is a cultural barrier to the adoption of high efficiency heat pumps.
As all the ingredients of household and community energy become consumer goods this presents a significant challenge to the traditional electricity industry. Solar panels, battery storage systems, electric vehicles, heat pumps and other appliances equipped with smart home plug-ins to effectively optimize energy use and electricity bills could become the norm.
The traditional sector is actively trying to re-invent its role in these markets, imagining its ability to order the plumber and get your hot water service replaced before you even knew there was a problem. Behemoths such as Google and General Electric are also spying an opportunity in the industry. Google (via Nest thermostats) suspects it understands servicing consumers far better than the incumbents. GE have purposely created an arms-length startup – Current, to be free to create the business model that will work in such a changeable sector.
In the USA there is much talk about micro-grids, largely due to the New York REV initiative (Renewing the Energy Vision). The early markets are private grids, such as universities. In other words mini neighbourhoods with a single owner, often already operating cogeneration plants and centralized ‘district’ heating or cooling systems.
The driver for New York’s interest in local scale resilience is Superstorm Sandy, which in places like Red Hook caused extended blackouts of over two weeks. The right combination and management of local energy resources could mean micro-grids can provide essential power without reliance on the wider electricity network.
Japan is also extremely aware of the need to disaster-proof the electricity network in the wake of the 2011 tsunami and the Higashimatsushima project is intended as a demonstration of that potential.
The most progress I have seen on testing the micro-grid idea is the cell controller project carried out in Jutland, Denmark from 2005 to 2011. I was privileged to visit the testing laboratory, funded by the Danish Government in Fort Collins, Colorado and also to interview the engineer in charge of the project, Per Lund from Energinet. The concept of autonomous operation after a grid event was proven possible with diverse local resources – wind, cogeneration and storage. Denmark has not pursued micro-grid development however, preferring stronger interconnection with the European market, ie the large scale model. It must be noted that since this project, smart technology for electricity systems has been through significant development and Spirae systems in Fort Collins are well positioned to advise the New York Government and further develop the technology.
In the wake of South Australia’s 2016 blackout I have written about some of these opportunities: changingweatherblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/30/was-this-adelaides-superstorm-sandy-moment/
The level of interconnection, ie how strongly and how often a place is connected electrically to the larger electricity network will influence its energy policy. Many of the places that reach 100% renewable energy, do so because the interconnections allow surplus renewables to be used elsewhere and top up energy to be bought into the region.
In the USA we discussed the impact of locational pricing. I was disappointed to realise that this meant price differences between markets (each market typically incorporates multiple states) and not a richer definition of value based on the location of generation and load which could support local, neighbourhood scale generation.
In Denmark the country is famous for moving toward distributed forms of energy and I was lucky to be able to join a forum comparing Danish and German energy transitions. The small local operators have been so important that in the mid 2000’s they were able to bid in the market (via aggregators) and adjust behavior to respond to market signals. However it appears that Danish energy policy is focused on adding still more connections – north to the hydro power of Norway which can store surplus wind and South to Europe to displace coal fired generation. Wind is frequently constrained and the Danish operators are trying to benefit from this cheap source of energy but many cogeneration plants are reaching end-of-life and the market is not conducive to continued operation. Across Europe there is some concern about electricity taking quite circular routes to major load centres and possible gaming in the markets.
Japan tolerates a 50Hz and a 60Hz system due to its history of being industrialised by both USA and German technologies. The electricity companies all own different regions and there has been little incentive to interconnect so movement of electricity between regions is relatively small. This may start to change after deregulation in April 2016.
The Isle of Eigg deserves a special mention as the only off-grid system that I visited. The island has surplus hydro energy in winter and needs to run diesel generators at times in summer. The system is designed to be simple – everyone pre-purchases electricity so there is no need to generate bills. A red light at the shop warns islanders when expensive diesel is being used to reduce consumption. Frequency triggered heaters operate in a range of community buildings and turn on during the winter surplus.
Blockchain is a technology that will allow peer to peer transactions without needing a central trusted body to manage the ledger. This has appeal for surplus energy and sharing around a neighbourhood, hence it is being developed as a concept by Brooklyn Microgrid. I interviewed the founder, Lawrence Orsini and was impressed by the approach to create a system where any technology provider can contribute blockchain enabled technology, such as storage, and operate within the market rules to contribute value. Unlike most in this space, Lawrence was not trying to change the system but simply build something practical and demonstrate the convenience and low cost of this technology. It might take a decade but will be easy to understand and use once the benefits become clear.
There are other blockchain companies in this space and since my return an Australian startup, PowerLedger, has announced they are expanding into the WA solar market. Blockchain technology also featured at the Intersolar conference.
Michel Bauwens, an expert in peer to peer technologies, cautions that technology is not values neutral and it is important to consider the values of the community before designing these systems. Blockchain, as the smarts underlying bitcoin, embodies an anarchist individual ideology, “we don’t need government”. Later attempts to build on the blockchain have been forced belatedly to add governance to the thinking about how the system works.
Key Blockchain links for those fascinated by the possibilities:
General: https://bitnation.co/main/ – advocating for government 2.0; Fermat.org has a white paper on internet of the people; https://daohub.org the decentralised autonomous organization and https://www.ethereum.org/ the code behind self-executing contracts; https://consensys.net/about/; http://neue-energiewelt.de/en/conferences; Solarpraxis spoke at the Munich conference. They had organised a discussion about the impact of block chain in one of their recent “new energy world” conferences.
Energy: http://lo3energy.com part of the Brooklyn Microgrid project:
http://gridsingularity.com/#/0/2 – trying similar energy based block chain
http://powerledger.io/ A startup based in Western Australia, capitalizing on the sudden loss of feed-in tariffs for solar owners.
Denmark is a world leader in wind energy and I visited the test centre that allows turbine manufacturers to test their leading edge technology. The largest turbines in the world are installed here.
The Orkney Islands are taking the lead in tidal and wave power using the Danish template. (partly inspired by the leadership the Scottish wind industry had in the 80’s and without government support they were forced to sell their patents – ironically to Vestas). This involves creating the testing sites for anyone in the world to use, technology specific targets and a supportive policy regime – in order to try and repeat the success Denmark had with wind energy.
Denmark also showed leadership on testing whether distributed energy resources could be used to reduce the risk of blackouts. The cell controller pilot project ran from 2005 to 2011. Fort Collins were fortunate to be chosen to test the cellular grid technology in the lab before going live on the Danish grid and the Danish Government funded the Integrid Laboratory. The refurbished power station is now part of the University and houses extensive testing equipment that can be used by local clean tech companies. In collaboration with 47 wind turbine owners and 5 local co-generation plants a part of the Danish Grid (just south of Billund, Jutland) was successfully disconnected from the main grid and then resynchronized. For local residents and businesses this stimulated ‘black out’ when unnoticed because the local assets kept the power running throughout the period.
In 2009 I spent time looking into Smart Grids because the Australian Government was set to give $100m for a showcase city. I was excited by what I saw, here was a vision of using the communications layer to provide information from and control back to the ‘smart’ equipment. After years in energy efficiency and demand management world, this promised the cheap interaction layer that the sector had always lacked and suddenly many more opportunities would become viable.
The conference I went to in 2009 on the topic was not so promising. The utilities talked about remote control of substations, automatic meter readings, building new comms. infrastructure and reducing their costs. The policy makers talked energy efficiency and energy policy from a user perspective. There was an invisible line dividing the room.
So I hoped my Churchill would point to some useful outcomes for all the Government money that has been spent across the globe and it represents $billions.
In Boulder, I was told that they had the dumbest smart grid ever. The technology had been in its infancy in 2008 so the most the utility could do was install smart meters. Excel came back for more money at one stage and the City Council finally pulled the plug on investing any more. This may even have contributed to loss of support for Excel and more favourable consideration of the Boulder grid buyback. This had been promoted as a showcase project in 2008 and attracted much publicity.
In Germany, I came to appreciate that the Federally funded program had now finished with all four year projects completed. There was little appetite to progress based on the results of these trials.
In Copenhagen, I couldn’t get an interview but visited the smart grid display within the port redevelopment. It talked all the right language and is backed by a University research group, however it remains an idea at this stage.
In Japan, I visited the Fujisawa Smart Sustainable Town, a development built by Panasonic to replace its own factory. The cookie cutter building had all the latest technology, batteries and solar panels. A kind woman from the bus showed me into her home to admire the passive solar design features. When I asked about the smarts, she had no idea. There was an in home panel display but no information about what it indicated. The local community centre had a more obvious display about how the whole community was performing in terms of energy consumption and greenhouse emissions.
Once again, I point to the Danish cell controller project as the most practical example of the possibilities – but this was developed before the smart grid programs and much of the technology was available and there is little appetite to build on what has been achieved.
The NEST thermostat comes from a completely different industry (owned by Google) and demonstrates the possibilities of smart devices and smart homes. At Intersolar one speaker claimed the utilities had been given long enough to introduce smart grid and failed and we all now needed to start thinking about the future in terms of smart homes.
The language of smart has been overtaken by the language of “Internet of Things”. I now see much talk by cities to become smart and install the base infrastructure for city lighting, parking, traffic congestion etc. Smart grids are often tacked on these initiatives (such as the Copenhagen example) and Adelaide has a partnership with CISCO underway. Adelaide has also just joined the Things network and will build a radio based infrastructure to provide the communications layer.
I still believe we will need a smarter grid. The electricity companies will not provide the communications and control layer – it can probably be provided equally by the internet and other public infrastructure. Reposit Power, a startup in Australia, for example, uses the internet to control an aggregated storage response capacity and manages the possibilities of communications disruption through design.
The costs and benefits remain marginal. We don’t spend significant amounts on energy so it is harder to spend money on gadgets that save and there is a longer discussion to be had about smart metering options which has been a policy tension in Australia since 2009.
Standards become one of the most important issues in this space. I was lucky to meet Dr. Tim Schoechle in Boulder who works on standards committees and has tackled the notion of digital commons through his PhD. Without standards, we carry costs when we move between brands – the electricity industry knows the regulators will never allow lock-in of this sort, hence a principle around interoperability and a commitment to industry standards. Nevertheless standards can be co-opted to benefit some over others and at its heart all technology design embodies certain values and culture. Standards therefore become a form of commons and need democratic oversight to ensure values and goals are sufficiently well considered.
I visited a range of high efficiency buildings including the new Rocky Mountain Institute office in Basalt. America uses its LEED rating as a badge of honour and proudly displays performance. The ultra-high efficiency buildings often have experimental aspects but nobody tends to talk openly about what doesn’t work. RMI, the FolkeCenter and Freiburg (Rolf Disch) have all made significant statements over the years with showcase buildings, high efficiencies, passive solar design, well insulated, comfortable and internal energy systems that use renewable and leading edge technologies.
Denmark’s base performance standards are impressive and places are far more comfortable than UK buildings in the same climate. The UK has higher levels of fuel poverty and health issues associated with poorly performing buildings. Denmark also enjoys a more communal culture so some energy design decisions are taken for heating supply (for example) for the whole building or village. In the UK by contrast District Heating schemes are rare and even apartments may be individually heated.
The cost of district heating can be an issue and ultra-high efficiency buildings can be exempted from mandatory use of the system. I would like to see more analysis about the future of district heating. As we electrify, individual heat pumps become an alternative for Denmark but some additional heat is needed for the coldest days. Electrification would reduce the storage that comes with heating fuels and improves resilience. The subject of optimum scale for sharing economics are one of the challenges I would like to explore further and the heating cultures of different countries provides a diversity of solutions.
Japan had a reputation for energy efficiency excellence in the wake of the 70’s oil crisis which exposed its incredible vulnerability to international energy markets. It surprised me to discover that Japan has failed to bring in a decent energy performance scheme for buildings and cites varying climates as a barrier. (Australia manages numerous climate zones. However we could do more to provide a long term pathway for improved performance in our energy standards). I was shown the graphs comparing Korea and China – the message being that Japan could not afford to be complacent and think it is a leader when evidence proves it is not. The crazy thing is that Japan has many regulations that force older buildings to be completely rebuilt to meet earthquake safety standards – this is the ideal time to invest in energy efficiency at little additional cost.
 In modern smart phones, for example, everything is password locked and the phone belongs to the individual – this works less well in cultures where sharing and kinship dominate cultural interactions.