Tag Archives: smart grid

A home run for renewables

When Jane Seymour and her husband Jerry installed solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of their home in Sheffield 18 months ago, they virtually stopped using their tumble dryer, as they became aware that the old machine was guzzling more than half as much electricity as their four-kilowatt solar system could produce in a day.

An increasing number of people, like Jane, 54, a professor at the University of Nottingham, are investing in so-called microgeneration to try and combat rising energy bills and take advantage of schemes such as the government’s feed-in tariffs.

“Since I installed the panels, I walk around the house making sure appliances are switched off,” she says. “I think about how much I spent on the panels and try to make sure that we can use them efficiently. Then I think about the sheer cost of our energy bills, so if we can do anything to reduce them that’s really good.”

Solar power is just one of a range of emerging technologies expected to play a key role in changing the way homes and businesses think about consumer energy over the coming years.

Under government plans, each of the UK’s 27m homes and businesses will have a smart meter and display installed by the end of 2019, allowing energy suppliers to receive accurate consumption data to put an end to estimated billing.

The vision is for every home in the UK to be able to easily track how much energy it is consuming, carbon it is emitting and money it is spending, at any given moment through a two-way communication function on the meter.

According to a recent study by Oxford Economics, the mass roll out of smart meters will cost £11.5bn but save £25.4bn, leading to a net gain for the UK of nearly £14bn between now and 2030. For an average household on a dual fuel tariff, that could result in savings of £65.50 a year, based on a 5% reduction in energy usage, as they respond to using the meters.

Steve Cunningham, chief executive of smart meter company Landys+Gyr, admits that some habits die hard, so there will remain a handful of consumers that will be unable or refuse to change their consumption habits, even once they have identified energy guzzling appliances. But he also predicts that new automated smart technologies will help to negate the need for consumers to change at all.

The Nest Learning Thermostat in the US, for example, claims to be able to lower heating and cooling bills by up to 20%, using sensors to remember and then program itself to a household’s schedule, for example by switching off the heating when everyone is out. Alterations can even be controlled by a smartphone to fit in with busy lifestyles.

Competition among people is also expected to play a role in driving greater energy efficiency. In the US, Opower and the National Resource Defense Council have started using social media to tap into our competitive spirits. The Opower Facebook app allows users to compare their energy use with friends and family after connecting with utilities to pull in usage figures.

New technologies such as this are likely to cause concern about privacy, given that energy data could reveal your daily routine and what you are doing in your home.

Privacy concerns

However, the government maintains it is taking the issue seriously. For example, energy companies will be forced to get consent from homeowners if they want to collect data more than once a day.

Experts also believe smart meters will help to drive down prices by encouraging greater competition in the energy market. A single data communications company will be introduced to make it significantly easier for consumers to switch suppliers, while a new range of tariffs could be launched that encourage energy efficient behaviour.

Tony Cocker, chief executive of E.ON UK, predicted that utilities would be able to offer tariffs that enable customers to choose to take their electricity at different parts of the day, for example when it is cheapest and demand is low.

The company also predicts that smart meters could one day act as a central control unit in the home, recognising when the rooftop solar panels are generating and then flick the switch on the washing machine. They could also link up with electric cars, ensuring battery packs charge when demand is low, and feed power back into the grid if it knows the car was staying in the garage all day.

“Smart meters help our customers to understand their energy use and then reduce demand as best as they can,” he said. “We’ve already seen from trials that our customers with smart meters really do start to understand how they can reduce energy to make significant gains. They then need the education and encouragement to help them make changes.

This feature first appeared in a Guardian supplement sponsored by E.ON

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Faroe Islands reveal the secrets of successful ‘negawatts’

sund 1It is 1pm on a Thursday in mid-November and about 40 people have crowded into Sund PowerPlant’s small control room on the Faroe Islands.

They are waiting for Finn Jakobsen, manager of distribution and production at SEV, the utility that owns Sund, who has his finger poised over a button that will instantly switch off 10 per cent of the islands’ energy supply.

He looks confident that everything will be OK, but he has also told his audience more than once where the fire exit is, in case they need to make a quick escape. Thankfully, the emergency exits will remain unused.

Instead, when Jakobsen finally hits the switch, the meter of engine number two drops to zero, and the frequency display shows a momentary dip. But there is no blackout, no alarm bell, no drama.

Why? Because less than a second after the engine went down, SEV’s new IT system sent a signal to three industrial businesses on the other side of the island, which automatically cut their energy demand when he hit the switch, rebalancing the grid frequency and allowing the lights to stay on.

On the Danish mainland, DONG Energy has up to 30 seconds to respond to a drop in demand before a blackout, but on the Faroe Islands, SEV has less than a second to respond.

The IT system is known as Power Hub, a virtual power station designed by Danish utility DONG Energy under the European Union’s Twenties R&D programme, which aims to find ways of integrating rising levels of intermittent wind energy onto the grid.

The Faroe Islands, a remote archipelago that is officially part of Denmark, is the perfect location for testing some of these emerging technologies. The outpost is planning to significantly increase its reliance on wind power as a means of reducing hefty oil import bills, and at the same time it is keen to tackle the fairly frequent power blackouts that continue to afflict the islands.

DONG Energy maintains utilities can significantly reduce their costs through the use of virtual power stations, such as Power Hub, as instead of building costly new fossil-fuelled power plants for back up, they are able to reduce peak power demands in a controlled manner.

These so-called “demand response” or “negawatt” models are not a new concept, having been succesfully pioneered in the US. But DONG hopes that Power Hub will add a new degree of flexibility to existing smart grid systems, integrating a range of distributed energy sources including solar panels and electric vehicles, while still enabling the automated reduction in power demand at peak times that defines all “negawatt” schemes.

So far it seems like the concept is working well on the Faroe Islands.

From SEV’s point of view, the three businesses signed up to the scheme use 10 per cent of the energy on the island, so persuading them to link up to PowerHub and agree to curb their demand at key times is far simpler and less costly than trying to get every home to join the trials through the use of advanced smart appliances.

Moreover, it seems that all three businesses are happy to sign up – they see it as an opportunity rather than a burden.

All three companies are part of the fishing industry, and despite running different operations, they are all in the convenient position of being able to drastically reduce their energy demand at a moment’s notice without impeding their operations.

For example, Bergfrost Cold Storage boasts a storage tunnel drilled into a mountain at the harbour side, which means it can lose power for 24 hours without causing damage to its frozen foods.

Hiddenfjord Salmon Farm, by contrast, can only operate for up to 15 minutes without power loss harming its fish. After 15-30 minutes, three to four million fish would be lost, costing the company a minimum of 20 million DKK (£2.2m). But SEV knows the constraints and the company maintains 10-15 minutes of controlled outage is far better than the prospect of emergency blackouts that can last for hours.

With every millisecond counting after an outage, rapid response is vital. Once the Power Hub has balanced out the grid by automatically reducing power demand from the participating businesses, SEV then has 15 minutes of downtime to power up another generation source, such as the hydropower stations dotted around the archipelago.

Hiddenfjord also has its own back-up generator that it is hoping to link up to the virtual power plant so it can sell energy back to SEV in an emergency, creating yet more flexibility on the grid.

But while the IT systems for PowerHub may be in place, DONG says it is still exploring the best way to reward those companies that agree to take part. Should they receive payments in return for their participation, or is the reduced likelihood of emergency blackouts incentive enough?

Anders Birke, lead IT architect at DONG Energy, maintains that if payments were to be offered they would probably be lower than existing demand response schemes in other countries, simply because the industries are not sacrificing profits by taking part in the scheme.

While Power Hub might work for a small community with vast amounts of wind power, is it really  feasible for more complex power grids?

Peter Vinter, DONG Energy’s system architect with overall responsibility for Power Hub, insisted the system could be easily adapted to other island communities. But again, he said the trick is to find those businesses that can reduce their energy demand without disrupting their operations and undermining their profitability.

For example, companies in a hot holiday destination like the Canary Islands, might be able to reduce their air conditioning energy use for half an hour at a time, without frustrating employees or tourists too much.

“We’ve started by taking our own medicine,” added Vinter. “Right now we’re integrating our own climate air conditioning system at our headquarters in Denmark to see how long we can interrupt service without impairing the comfort in the office.

“But it’s a very unique experience every time you visit an island to find out what are the pain points there in terms of increasing renewables, finding out what assets are available and how flexible they are.”

This article first appeared in BusinessGreen

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