The Transition to the “Internet of Electricity”

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Colin Palmer is the chair of Wight Community Energy which has recently installed a 3.95MW solar farm, Homestead, on the Isle of Wight.

It is all too easy to become despondent about the future of sustainable energy in these Trump-era, post-truth times. But look behind the political spin and shouting headlines and the facts say otherwise. In many countries around the world, solar energy is becoming the lowest cost source of energy, full stop, no argument. In the last few months, commercial companies have won open market, unsubsidised competitive bidding rounds to provide electricity in Chile and Abu Dhabi, with prices of less than 2.5p per unit. India is planning to add 42.6GW of renewables (mainly solar) by 2019 and China is on a similar path. These installations will be directly replacing what would otherwise have been coal generation, so very significant in terms of carbon reduction. In America, they are installing the equivalent of one Homestead every 2 hours – which equates to one Hinkley per year. Even Trump is going to have a hard time stopping that momentum.

In parallel with these trends – outcomes that have dramatically outpaced the ability of politicians and policy makers to keep up – the cost of wind energy is also coming down, both onshore and offshore. In the American mid-west and Argentina, it is competitive with gas generation; perhaps counter-intuitively, Texas has a very high proportion of wind generation and oil companies, big and small, are queuing up to invest. Recently a major utility, Vattenfall, bid an offshore wind project in the Baltic at substantially less than the price we will all be paying for power from Hinkley.

Knitting this all together are exciting and very fast moving developments in the way electricity systems operate. Historically, our networks have been “top down”, with a few massive power stations generating the energy we need. They are connected at very high voltage, sending the electricity over a series of ever thinner wires and lower voltages until it reaches end users. The lower voltage local systems, the so-called distribution networks, were designed only to accept the power from the power stations and deliver it to consumers, not to host generation capacity. A system like this is inherently stable and relatively easy to understand, control and structure in a way that allows the tracking of money flows.

In contrast, most sustainable energy technologies are small and distributed. They are more suitable for connection at distribution system voltages and into the distribution network. This is putting stresses on the system and is why, for example, no new capacity can be connected on the Isle of Wight. Quite simply, the wires linking us to the mainland are not thick enough to take any more power away when our generation exceeds demand on a hot summer’s day. Under the present system of regulation, there are no incentives to do anything to change this. It is a problem of politics, not technology.

There are parallels here with the transition from wired to mobile communication, from mainframe computers to personal computing, with many companies, large and small failing to see the change coming and failing to adapt. But change is coming and people are starting to get it. As the CEO of the National Grid said recently: “Our engineers say that 2015 was the last year we operated the system in the way it has operated for the past 50. The way we are operating now is fundamentally different.”

The enabling technologies for this transition are storage and communication via the “internet of things” – automatic machine to machine information flows and linkages. The ever falling cost of computing power means that even the humblest control systems and sensors can talk to each other and, as batteries become more energy dense, efficient and low cost, they are finding their way into every part of our world, from cordless electric drills to electric cars. The key thing in the future is that they will be able to communicate and allow power to flow both ways. OK, it is unlikely that your toothbrush will end up powering the electricity network, but if you have an electric car, it most certainly will.

At the same time, your appliances will be able to autonomously regulate the amount of power they draw, which will mean that the days of great swings in the matching of supply and demand will be consigned to the past. We will move to an “internet of electricity”, complex, interactive, ever changing to adapt to consumer needs, increasingly resilient and responsive and of course, sustainable.