Getting the most out of tomorrow’s grid requires digitisation and demand response
It might also need a dash of democracy
Frequencies matter. When a singer misses a note, a choir’s harmony can be ruined. When an electric grid wobbles around off key, equipment attached to it can be badly damaged. Worries about the fluctuations that renewables might bring with them in the frequency at which an electrical grid operates (50 hertz, or cycles a second, in most of the world, 60 hertz in much of the Americas and a few parts of Asia) have caused grid operators to be leery of renewable energy.
Now some renewables have developed perfect pitch. On May 11th Huawei, a Chinese technology goliath, unveiled the latest version of FusionSolar, a smart-home system that combines solar cells and energy storage. One of its features is “grid-forming” software which allows the system to set itself precisely to the grid’s frequency, helping to stabilise it.
Distributed energy resources (ders) like smart houses with solar panels demand more from grids—but systems like FusionSolar allow them to offer more, too. Taking up that offer is not easy. A grid connecting millions of systems that draw power at some times and supply it at others becomes “increasingly complex to plan for, orchestrate and keep in balance,” says Audrey Zibelman. After three decades as a utility executive, network operator and regulator in America and Australia Ms Zibelman now works at X, the irritatingly named outfit which serves as a “moonshot” incubator for Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Her project there, Tapestry, aims to provide what she calls “Google Street View for the grid”. With copious sensors, data from ders and smart software she aims to make the grid manageable at a level of subtlety never seen before.
Combining ders with this ability to see what is going on in exquisite detail is a challenging task. There is a risk that so much data will prove paralysing. But those who can pull it off will see real benefits in terms of flexibility. Many of the new things being connected to the grid in large numbers, such as heat pumps and electric vehicles, have significant room for manoeuvre as to when, and how much, they consume. If what they have to offer can be accurately appraised and matched to what is happening on the supply side that flexibility becomes a powerful economic asset.
What people want from energy is simply “cold beer and hot showers”
Demand management is a breakthrough long discussed and just as long deferred. Utilities which were heavily regulated, monopolies or both saw little reason to “modify, adjust, manage, shape, shift or shed customers’ demand,” Fereidoon Sioshansi writes in a recent book, “Variable Generation, Flexible Demand”. They just added capacity and passed on the costs. Providing customers with price signals did not live up to the promise market-minded reformers imagined for it. Ordinary people do not want to spend all their time on energy day-trading sites to save a few pennies on power. As Amory Lovins, an alternative-energy guru who co-founded a think-tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute (rmi), has long argued, what people want from energy is simply “cold beer and hot showers”.
Acknowledging this is the key to the strategy Mr Sioshansi champions: “we need to automate things, essentially bypassing the customers.” New der-enabled smart grids are an excellent way of doing this. Customers can set preferences as to what they need charged up and when, as they do in a new scheme offered by Octopus Energy Group, a British provider. After that they let the system do as it wants—an approach the company says can, among other things, lower the cost of charging an electric vehicle (ev) by 75%. Such savings by consumers equate, at some point, with savings for the suppliers in terms of electricity they did not have to ship down congested transmission lines.
An in-depth study carried out by America’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory puts numbers to some of the possibilities. It analysed the impact of using dynamic price signals to automatically incentivise and co-ordinate a variety of ders on a theoretical grid the size of Texas. Operation stabilised, loads were lowered, household-power prices dropped by 10% to 17%. The need for transmission, distribution and generating infrastructure fell.
In Britain a new regime for distribution-system operators means that utilities will be able to solicit ders via open and transparent “flexibility” markets. That should allow them to provide better services without having to add generating or transmission capacity. In Australia, Energy Web, a charity co-founded by the rmi, is working with the energy-market operator, a big distribution utility and several aggregators of distributed resources to develop a “transactive” energy market that allows customer-owned ders to bid into the wholesale energy market.
The check on such things is not because of a lack of interest in greening; it is because of opposition from incumbents. This can be as marked in purportedly green countries as anywhere else. The Association of Energy Market Innovators, a European trade group, grouses that “Germany’s regulatory framework for its smart meter roll-out...should by no means serve as a role model.” Jesse Morris of Energy Web complains that, in California and Hawaii, utilities are allowed to “simply prevent—either directly or via prohibitively high interconnection fees—ders from being added to the grid.”
The commercial and industrial market for flexible demand is taking off too. Enel X, part of Enel, an Italian electricity giant, is one of the biggest aggregators of demand response, something its customers are coming to appreciate. Kimberly Clark, a big consumer-products firm, gave it authority over 5mw of load at one of its factories, allowing it to sell the grid “negawatts” at times of peak demand. With no capital investment and no big change in operations the company earned over $2m from the scheme.
This Technology Quarterly was written in a comfortably cooled and well-lit apartment in a high-rise owned by one of New York City’s largest landlords. Unbeknown to your correspondent until recently, some of that landlord’s buildings now have solar capacity as well as energy-storage systems managed by Enel X that provide the grid-system operator with demand response at peak load. Good for avoiding blackouts, good for the landlord’s profits and all done without haranguing tenants to make fiddly green choices, just as it should be. ■
This article appeared in the Technology Quarterly section of the print edition under the headline "The people’s power"
Climate technology The energy transition
- Electrifying everything does not solve the climate crisis, but it is a great start
- Getting the most out of tomorrow’s grid requires digitisation and demand response
- Decarbonisation of electric grids reliant on renewables requires long-duration energy storage
- New technology can help monitor, manage and minimise methane leaks
- Making natural gas emissions-free will be a challenge
- Green gases can help in the shift from fossil fuels to electricity
From the June 25th 2022 edition
Discover stories from this section and more in the list of contentsExplore the edition