Looking for and supplying flexibility


Sustainable energy is no longer just a hype: it has become a real trend. But growth inevitably creates new challenges. Production is often unpredictable, and this means that peaks and troughs in supply are common. Flexibility in consumption is one way of dealing with these fluctuations. Flexible consumption demands new, standardized control engineering both in domestic appliances and the electrical grid.

Article from Objective 20, 2013

The growth of sustainable energy has caused quite a stir on the energy market. Big energy suppliers are re-evaluating their position now that increasing numbers of people are generating their own energy with solar panels, while wind and solar power are on offer from Germany. This growth also poses new challenges. The generation of sustainable energy has been decentralized: the days are over that all electricity was carried from power stations through thick transmission lines and ever finer networks until it reached domestic power sockets. Houses have themselves become places where electricity is generated. But the network has not yet been scaled to accommodate a situation where large numbers of consumers are feeding power into the grid. Moreover, this kind of supply is much less predictable than supply generated by power stations. Weather conditions determine the level of output and the physical whereabouts of human beings determine consumption. What use are solar panels at home if you spend much of your day at work, having driven there in your electric car? You want to be able to charge your car at work, but your solar panels are at home.

In short, the challenges have to do with flexibility and transport. If you have no direct use at home for all of the power your solar panels generate, you want to be able to defer consumption or to transmit the power to another location or another user. To defer consumption you could invest in a huge installation of batteries in your home, but there are more innovative and cheaper ways of ensuring 24-hour access to power. At the moment, ‘exchange’ is the norm. If you generate more power than you can use, you feed it back into the grid. And if you come home in the evening to find your home in the dark, you use power from the grid. From an administrative viewpoint this is a satisfactory solution. Not so from a technological viewpoint, because it leads precisely to the kind of peaks and troughs that have just been mentioned.

Keeping it local

The best solution is to keep electricity local. Just as you might sell lettuce from your vegetable garden to your neighbors, so you should be able to supply the neighbors with solar power from your roof. Keeping power in the locality can also be profitable for the distribution network operator, because he doesn’t need to overload the net any further. The present grid hardware is already set up for creating a local energy market where consumers can obtain the power they need for their heat pumps from the neigbors. All that is required is some control engineering and some good agreements.

Looking for and offering flexibility

Apart from pure storage, energy can also be stored in buffers: in boilers, freezers and domestic heating systems. If the thermostat at home allows a variance of plus or minus one degree, and the boiler and freezer maybe even plus or minus five degrees, you have already created potential for regulating power consumption. It doesn’t amount to much at the level of individual homes. But an interesting scenario emerges once an entire neighborhood is connected to the grid through smart plugs. This kind of home-based flexibility could allow power suppliers and distribution network operators to level out their peaks and troughs.

Smart plugs

The major appliances industry is already making intelligent machines, such as washing machines that only initiate a program after they have received a particular signal. But the point is: who is going to give this signal and how? It’s not going to be the current electricity network, which hardly uses ICT. New technology is necessary in order to access the flexibility that is available. Preferably in a standardized way, so that it will lead to the emergence of an open market in which everyone can participate. Whether you have a Miele or a Samsung washing machine, or whether you have a contract with operator X or Y, the smart plug should always fit the smart power socket. It doesn’t matter who makes the plug, as long as it fits.

Android for the energy world

The Flexiblepower Alliance Network (FAN) is an initiative that aims to achieve just this kind of standard in energy communication. Appliances should be fitted with standard ICT plugs or ‘smart grid plugs’ as well as the standard 220V power plugs. And there should be a single platform to operate everything: a ‘FAN computer’ that communicates with every appliance in the home. Every company can work to the open standard. It would be a kind of Android for the energy world, including an app store. In the future if you buy a new boiler, you’ll come home to connect it to your FAN computer, which accesses all kinds of extra possibilities for use. Refrigerators, washing machines, electric cars and solar panels will all have their own applications that can be operated from a single platform.

Energy intermediary

These technological possibilities will create a new market for energy services. Entrepreneurs who manage to link up the flexibility of a large number of homes will have created a strong bargaining position when it comes to negotiating energy prices with the power suppliers. Service providers like that will become energy intermediaries. Not just for homes, but also for offices and small and medium-sized enterprises. They too have flexibility, for instance in their office heating systems or air conditioning systems. All office buildings together make up a huge buffer for network operators and power suppliers. This flexibility can be accessed through smart technology or by making smart use of existing technology. Technology that is often the preserve of the electrician who places and maintains the installations in these buildings. Let’s imagine that he will also be offering energy contracts to users. ‘I’m offering you a fixed price for your power consumption, a price that’s lower than the one you’re paying now. I know the energy needs and conditions of your building, because I put the installations in myself. I’m going to make sure that you stay below that amount, but in order to do that I need the possibility to regulate energy consumption.’

This means he needs control engineering. And: he needs a standard plug that allows him to connect all the appliances to the control panel. If he is able to link up all the buildings that he manages and if he is able to provide the flexibility that all those buildings have together, he has created a lot of value both for the power supplier and for the user.

Energy as a service

In this example the fitter doubles as an energy intermediary. But with the rise of smart plugs everyone can take on this role. Telecommunications companies could  do it, especially given their ICT expertise and their networks. Internet connections are perfectly suited for exploiting this kind of service. 

From saving energy to creating potential for regulating power consumption

Attentive readers will have noticed that we haven’t mentioned the term energy saving yet. In fact the developments described here have more to do with controlling than with saving. Energy consumption continues to grow, with an ever larger percentage being derived from sustainable sources. The unpredictability of wind and solar power will cause energy prices to fluctuate ever more strongly. Peaks and troughs in the supply determine the price. Everyone wants to turn this to advantage, but that requires technology that can create and use potential for regulating consumption in the electricity grid. Standardization is essential if this development is to expand and become a trend.

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