The smart grid promises solutions to problems that bedevil renewables, but the pieces still need to be put in place.
By John Elkington
“Welcome to the future!” That was how the founders of the Living Tomorrow lab in Vilvoorde, on the outskirts of Brussels, kicked off a book called Living and Working the Future. Their USP: display a wide range of seductive, user-friendly solutions to sustainability problems.
Nor was this an exercise in walk-in science fiction: 80 percent of the solutions would be ready to go, the rest likely to emerge in the near future.
The key ingredient in their recipe: making the solutions emotionally appealing, demonstrating how they can fit seamlessly into our everyday lives by showing them as part of a state-of-the-art kitchen, bathroom or bedroom. Living Tomorrow general director Joachim de Vos told me how wonderful it is “to wake up in the future.”
Perhaps, but one exhibit I didn’t see was the mirror of the future: I can’t even begin to imagine what it will tell me as I take in the night’s damage each new morning.
Smart Grid Flanders
Still, I wasn’t contemplating a new kitchen or bathroom. Instead, I was in town to keynote the first in a proposed series of international conferences on the future of the electrical power grids underpinning our modern lifestyles—an event organized by Smart Grids Flanders.
As I hauled my suitcase through the automated, highly insulated front door of the Living Tomorrow facility, I imagined I knew what I was doing. But just when you think you have some idea of what is going on, a different take on reality acts like that bucket of ice-cold water thrown over someone who is asleep or drunk.
Yes, I had planned to kick off my speech by admitting that I was no sort of expert on smart energy or smart grids, but I had imagined that I had a reasonably good grip on the sector. I read a lot. I work for companies that are sliding into the sector, strategically or not. And 25 years ago, I spent three years on an industry advisory panel whose task was to help ensure that the privatization of the UK electricity grid was as environment-friendly as possible.
How the Internet Revolutionized the Grid
But those grids were like primeval life forms compared to what is now evolving, much of it out of most people’s sight. Back then, the Internet did not exist. Once it did begin to surface, a few years later, everything would change.
For grid operators the impact was two-fold: first and most obviously, the Internet began to make it possible to gather and process vastly greater quantities of information from every part of the energy system and, second, the Internet’s own structure hinted at ways in which future power grids might evolve—towards much more distributed forms, bound together by those same flows of data and information.
Wider Choices but Grid Still in “Stone Age”
Among the benefits of smarter grids are that they link producers and users of energy in new ways that enable a wider choice of supply options, ensure greater levels of reliability and security in terms of energy supply, and can radically shrink the system’s environmental footprint.
That, at least, is the theory. But we heard about a pilot study carried out on the Danish island of Bornholm, as part of the European EcoGrid initiative. Unexpectedly, early results have shown that powering the equipment needed to support the pilot project consumed almost as much power as the consumer end of the project saved.
Still, pilot projects are designed to help iron out early glitches that the theories didn’t predict. And what I had missed in all my reading was just how big a deal all of this is going to be. As André Jurres of green power investor NPG Energy put it, today’s grids are still Stone Age rather than Star Trek, though other speakers agreed that we are on the threshold of an era in which the demand for – and supply of – smart energy will “explode.”
Smart Grids and the Storage Problem
One contributory factor has been the Fukushima disaster. By spurring German Chancellor Angela Merkel to order the shut down of nuclear power plants, it helped open the way for renewable energy.
But the problem with renewables is that they can be pretty erratic. Now, as Germany massively boosts renewable energy production, its electricity grid is becoming increasingly unstable. Which is where smart grids come in, with a key part of their contribution being to help smooth out the fluctuations.
Among the ways in which grids can be buffered are pumped storage schemes (I visited the Dinorwic pumped storage scheme back in the CEGB days), batteries (of various forms, but now including using the batteries of electric vehicles) and flywheels, storing energy to be released later in the cycle.
When householders involved in the Bornholm pilot were asked why they had got involved, two key answers surfaced. The first was that they wanted to cut their energy bills. The second, no surprise in a country like Denmark, was that they were excited to be part of a smart, green smart energy project. But that didn’t stop a couple of hundred households dropping out of the scheme, as early glitches impacted power supply.
The Backbone of Tomorrow’s Sustainable Energy Systems
My questions about how we can insulate smart grids against solar storms and hackers weren’t answered directly, though I am sure we can. But I came away with the sense that smart grids will be the backbone of tomorrow’s sustainable energy systems – and now that they have caught my attention, I am going to have to rocket up the learning curve.
And the same is true of the politicians and policy-makers who must ensure that smart grids evolve fast enough, roll out widely enough and help stave off the six-degrees-of-global-warming scenario that at least one industry leader seemed to take as virtually inevitable. What an unwelcome future that would be.