Blogs, DER, Infrastructure, Solar, Storage

Gaia’s nervous system: Why the future grid must be managed by connected technology

It is clear that renewables are the future of the energy industry. As the world continues to rely less and less on fossil fuels for power and looks to sources like wind, solar and nuclear, an issue is arising. The great problem of renewables is that the sun shines when it shines, the wind blows when it blows, and even nuclear power isn’t as simple as just turning a reactor on and off. Coal, oil and gas can be turned up and down instantly (“dispatched”) to ensure that grid supply is always sufficient to meet changes in grid demand, but with renewables – which can’t be dispatched at will – there will always be times of boom and bust.

Utilities have been left with a conundrum around how to best store renewable energy when it is in excess so that it can be use when it is in shorter supply. The obvious answer is batteries, but with grid-scale battery technology costly and still in development, we need a solution now. That solution is demand side response (DSR) – where demand is adjusted dynamically to match the available renewable supply. But whereas generation was very centralised (a few big power stations), demand is spread across millions of homes, factories, offices and streets across the country. The solution is to connect those devices using the internet, enabling real-time monitoring and management of potentially gigawatts of aggregated demand, equivalent to several large power stations. But, at present, connected devices have a reputation as being unreliable, which has to change if they are to support the new grid.

The power of DSR

DSR is nothing new and companies are already making use of it, but it is yet to really hit the mainstream. I expect that to change as we continue to increase our renewable energy generation.

One great example of DSR in action is Dutch energy giant Eneco, which is deploying its SlimmeBoiler Module. A connected device is installed next to a customer’s electric hot water heater, instructing it to heat water at times when renewable energy production is high – such as sunny or windy periods. For customers, this is great as they can get more hot water at a cheaper price, while saving the environment. For Eneco, solves a real problem of what to do with excess energy at peak generation times as the renewable energy produced is now stored as hot water. So overall, a win-win for everyone.

Another area that can really feel the benefit of DSR is electric vehicles, which really is battery storage, but on a smaller, more personal scale. With government legislating that the sale of combustion engine vehicles will be banned from 2030 and this year showing strong EV sales, EV charging and its strain on the grid is set to become a real issue over the next few years. DSR will be a great way of managing this, with consumers charging their vehicles at times when renewable energy is in high supply and turning down charging demand when the grid’s supply is lower.

The internet is Gaia’s nervous system

In the 1970’s, environmentalist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis coined the “Gaia hypothesis” which thinks of the whole of our planet Earth as a single organism, whose inputs and outputs, needs and behaviour need to be kept in balance for its future health. Technology is a massive force for good or ill, and the rise of technology since the Industrial Revolution has placed massive strains upon Gaia. Now perhaps technology can ride to the rescue of the problem it has created.

Clearly there is a reliance on connected technology to monitor, manage and control DSR as it becomes more widely used – I simply cannot see another way of coordinating and managing renewable energy consumption. When looked at in this context, perhaps the Internet of Things is technology’s gift to Gaia. Just as – in the early days of the Earth – individual animals evolved a nervous system to help them to manage as an increasingly complex organism, perhaps we can think of IoT as a nervous system which is evolving to help Gaia to coordinate all our new technology with a smarter, greener grid.

However, the Internet of Things has a bit of a reputation for unreliability at present. Its rollout has been plagued by inconsistencies, and it is yet to really take off as many expected or show how it can benefit the energy industry as it moves to renewable power.

From experience co-founding AlertMe (which went on to become Centrica’s Hive™), I know how reliability can become the number one issue as service providers start to scale. In the early days, it is easy to keep an eye on what is happening on an estate of perhaps a few hundred devices. But as service providers scale beyond a thousand devices or so, the amount of data being gathered becomes too much for the human brain, spreadsheets and manual processes to handle, and it becomes very difficult for to gauge the standard of service they are providing. Chances are, it is a poor one.

This has become a real problem for service providers, who aren’t judged by the quality of their tech, but by the quality of service that it provides. This is why Service Monitoring is a crucial cog in the renewables wheel. Without it, it is impossible to know what is happening on your devices – are there too many or too few in an area? What kind of data are they collecting? Are there any faulty devices, and is this fault part of a larger problem, or an isolated incident? If you are expecting connected devices to manage DSR to any level of quality, these are questions that need to be answered.

Without connected devices coordinating the grid, DSR will be at best disjointed, and at worst completely ineffective. It is a key factor in providing renewable energy, which can’t simply be dispatched when demand is high. To take full advantage of DSR, the connected devices that inform it have to actually work, which is the hardest piece of the puzzle for providers to get right as they scale.

Service Monitoring is the tool that brings this all together, enabling connected devices and renewable energy generation to run efficiently. Without it, we will never realize the true power of renewable energy.