Tag: electricity

Technology is moving us to a world where energy is cheaper, smarter, and less carbon intensive

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 11.51.40

The graph above is a graph of electricity demand on the Spanish electricity grid taken from the demand page of the grid management company Red Electrica de España.

The data comes from April 26th this year through to Mar 3rd. The sever small graphs along the bottom are daily demand curves, going from Tuesday April 26th on the left, through to Monday May 3rd on the right. You can see that the demand curves for each day are virtually the same.

Saturday and Sunday are however, obvious due to the lower demand on those days, and if you are wondering why Monday the 3rd looks to be lower than the rest of the weekdays, it is because that Monday was a holiday in Spain.

The large graph on top is a zoomed-in look at the demand on one of those days – Friday April 29th. From that you can see that the demand starts to rise early in the morning with the peak occurring between 8-11am. Demand then falls off until late afternoon when people are cooking their evening meals, peaking around 9pm, and then falling until it starts again the following day.

The pattern varies slightly by day of the week, as well as by season, but overall while it is variable, it is also highly predictable.

Graph of predicted energy demand vs actual demand on Spanish grid on April 29th
Graph of predicted energy demand (Green) vs actual demand (yellow) on Spanish grid on April 29th this year – graph from REE

This can be problematic though when you have high penetrations of variable energy suppliers, such as wind and solar.

Here is the energy supplied to the system by wind, for example on April 29th

Energy supplied by wind on the Spanish grid on April 29th this year
Wind energy on the 29th of April on the Spanish grid

As you can see, it doesn’t map well with the demand, and this is challenging for grid management companies, especially with increasing pressure on them to decarbonise.

That can lead to circumstances where wind power ends up supplying 140% of your demand, as happened in the Netherlands last summer. Fortunately, the Netherlands has good interconnects, and so was able to sell this excess energy to its neighbouring countries. This won’t always be the case though, and will become a more common issue as the penetration of wind and solar increases globally.


Obviously, if you can’t manage the supply side of the grid, what about managing the demand – how achievable is that?

Interestingly, this is now becoming a real possibility. Already there are companies who aggregate the demand of large organisations with facilities for reducing demand, if required, and sell that reduced demand to utility companies. This can save the utility from having to build new generation sources to meet the increased demand at times of peak load.

Demand flexibility graph
Demand flexibility

What if this were more widespread?

Looking at the chart above, if we could shift the yellow demand line up during its overnight dip, and then reduce the yellow demand line during the morning and evening, this would make the grid more stable, and allow for the introduction of more variable generators (solar and wind) onto the system, as well as reducing the requirement for expensive ‘peaker plants’.

Sounds great Tom, how to do that?

Well price is always a great motivator. In Germany last week where there was an excess of energy on the system, so pricing went negative, meaning large customers were being paid to use it.

Negative pricing on the German energy market
Graph of negative pricing on the German electricity market

Reduced, or negative pricing is a better option than wind farm curtailment because curtailment lowers the income for the wind farms, making them a less attractive investment for renewables developers, while reduced pricing moves the demand to a more suitable time.

Now, with the advent of the Internet of Things, everything starts to be smart and connected. If our electricity devices can listen for realtime electricity signals from the grid, they can adjust their consumption accordingly.

Of course, not all loads in the home are movable  – not many people will decide to cook their evening meal at 3am just because the wind is blowing and energy is cheap.

However, many loads are eminently movable. Pool pumps, are a good example. And also many loads that have a heating or cooling component associated with them, such as an electric hot water heater. When it is well insulated it doesn’t matter when it heats the water. Similarly for fridges, freezers, ice bank air conditioning, and so on. These are straightforward and affordable forms of energy storage.

Dish washers, washing machines, clothes dryers can also be made to listen to electricity pricing, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. Often, when you put the dish washer on in the evening, you don’t care when it comes on, as long as the dishes are clean and dry when you get up the following morning.

As more of our appliances become connected and smart, this will become the norm. Obviously, for widespread adoption, this kind of behaviour has to be totally automated. If the device owner has to think about it, it won’t happen.

Smart grid appliance

And then there are the real storage options, using batteries. This can be in the form of batteries in electric vehicles using vehicle-to-grid technologies, in-home batteries such as the ones Tesla, and others sell, or reconditioned electric vehicle batteries – a market that is just starting to get going.

So, good news, technology is moving us inexorably to a world where energy is getting cheaper, smarter, and less carbon intensive.

The future of electric utilities – change and disruption ahead

The utilities industry has typically been change averse, and often for good reasons, but with the technological advances of the past few years, the low carbon imperative, and pressure from customers, utilities are going to have to figure out how to disrupt their business, or they will themselves be disrupted.

I gave the opening keynote at this year’s SAP for Utilities event in Huntington Beach on the topic of the Convergence of IoT and Energy (see the video above). Interestingly, with no coordination beforehand, all the main speakers referred to the turmoil coming to the utilities sector, and each independently referenced Tesla and Uber as examples of tumultuous changes happening in other industries.

What are the main challenges facing the utilities industry?

As noted here previously, due to the Swanson effect, the cost of solar is falling all the time, with no end in sight. The result of this will be more and more distributed generation being added to the grid, which utilities will have to manage, and added to that, the utilities will have reduced income from electricity sales, as more and more people generate their own.

On top of that, with the recent launch of their PowerWall product, Tesla ensured that in-home energy storage is set to become a thing.

Battery technology is advancing at a dizzying pace, and as a consequence:

1) the cost of lithium ion batteries is dropping constantly Battery Cost


2) the energy density of the batteries is increasing all the time Li-Ion battery energy Density

(Charts courtesy of Prof Maarten Steinbuch, Director Graduate Program Automotive Systems, Eindhoven University of Technology)

With battery prices falling, solar prices falling, and battery energy density increasing, there is a very real likelihood that many people will opt to go “off-grid” or drastically reduce their electricity needs.

How will utility companies deal with this?

There are many possibilities, but, as we have noted here previously, an increased focus on by utilities on energy services seems like an obvious one. This is especially true now, given the vast quantities of data that smart meters are providing utility companies, and the fact that the Internet of Things (IoT) is ensuring that a growing number of our devices are smart and connected.

Further, with the cost of (solar) generation falling, I can foresee a time when utility companies move to the landline model. You pay a set amount per month for the connection, and your electricity is free after that. Given that, it is all the more imperative that utility companies figure out how to disrupt their own business, if only to find alternative revenue streams to ensure their survival.

So, who’s going to be the Uber of electricity?

IBM to increase the amount of renewable electricity it procures

IBM branded battery

After returning from IBM’s InterConnect conference recently we chided IBM for their aping of Amazon’s radical opaqueness concerning their cloud emissions, and their lack of innovation concerning renewables.

However, some better news emerged in the last few days.

The Whitehouse last week hosted a roundtable of some of the largest Federal suppliers to discuss their GHG reduction targets, or if they didn’t have any, to create and disclose them.

Coming out of that roundtable, IBM announced its committment to procure electricity from renewable sources for 20% of its annual electricity consumption by 2020. To do this, IBM will contract over 800 gigawatt-hours (GWh) per year of renewable electricity.

And IBM further committed to:

Reduce CO2 emissions associated with IBM’s energy consumption 35% by year-end 2020 against base year 2005 adjusted for acquisitions and divestitures.

To put this in context, in the energy conservation section of IBM’s 2013 corporate report, IBM reports that it sourced 17% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2013.

It is now committing to increase that from the 2013 figure of 17% to 20% by 2020. Hmmm.

IBM committed to purchasing 800 GWh’s of renewable electricity per year by 2020. How does that compare to some of its peers?

In 2014, the EPA reported that Intel purchased 3,102 GWh’s, of renewable electricity, and Microsoft purchased 2,488 GWh’s which, in both cases amounted to 100% of their total US electricity use.

In light of this, 800 GWh’s amounting to 20% of total electricity use looks a little under-ambitious.

On the other hand, at least IBM are doing something.

Amazon, as noted earlier, have steadfastly refused to do any reporting of their energy consumption, and their emissions. This may well be, at least in part, because Amazon doesn’t sell enough to the government to appear on the US Federal government’s Greenhouse Gas Management Scorecard for significant suppliers.

With the news this week that 2015 will likely be the hottest year on record, and that the Antarctic ice sheets are melting at unprecedented rates, it is time for organisations that can make a significant difference, to do so.

Google, purchased 32% of their total US energy from renewables in 2014. But more than that, this week it emerged that Google are considering moving climate denying sites down the list of Google search results.

And just yesterday, Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff cancelled all his company’s events in the state of Indiana, after its governor signed a law making discrimination on the grounds of sexuality legal.

These are the kinds of measures that can make a difference.

Come on IBM. If this were your Spring Break report card, it’d read “IBM – could work harder”.

The coming together of the Internet of Things and Smart Grids

I was asked to speak at the recent SAP TechEd && d-code (yes, two ampersands, that’s the branding, not a typo) on the topic of the Internet of Things and Energy.

This is a curious space, because, while the Internet of Things is all the rage now in the consumer space, the New Black, as it were; this is relatively old hat in the utilities sector. Because utilities have expensive, critical infrastructure in the field (think large wind turbines, for example), they need to be able to monitor them remotely. These devices use Internet of Things technologies to report back to base. this is quite common on the high voltage part of the electrical grid.

On the medium voltage section, Internet of Things technologies aren’t as commonly deployed currently (no pun), but mv equipment suppliers are more and more adding sensors to their equipment so that they too can report back. In a recent meeting at Schneider Electric’s North American headquarters, CTO Pascal Brosset announced that Schneider were able to produce a System on a Chip (SoC) for $2, and as a consequence, Schneider were going to add one to all their equipment.

And then on the low voltage network, there are lots of innovations happening behind the smart meter. Nest thermostats, Smappee energy meters, and SmartThings energy apps are just a few of the many new IoT things being released recently.

Now if only we could connect them all up, then we could have a really smart grid.

The slides for this talk are available on SlideShare.

(Cross-posted @ GreenMonk: the blog)

Understanding the Smart Grid – my TreeHugger interview

Photo credit Lee Jordan

Jaymi Heimbuch contacted me recently to ask if I’d agree to be interviewed for a TreeHugger article she was planning to write on Smart Grids. “Love to”, I said.

Jaymi sent on the questions, I replied and today she posted the interview on TreeHugger.

Here are the questions and my answers:

TH: What’s the biggest barrier with smart grids right now? Is it utilities not latching on? Is the technology too new? Is it that not enough people understand what it is?

There are multiple barriers to complete smart grid roll-outs at the moment. The biggest one, as far as I can see is money!

The smart meter roll-out alone costs in the order of $150 per household just for the device. Then there is the installation engineer on top of that. And the software to back it up. In terms of the software, remember that presently utilities take maybe one meter reading a month. When they start taking readings from smart meters they will be taking up to 2880 per 30-day month when they are taking 15 minute readings (or 720 for hourly readings). If they have 1 million customers they go from 1m meter readings a month to 720m per month (or 2,880m). That’s a massive jump in the amount of incoming data which needs to be stored, queried for billing, and held for however long.

A lot of the software to handle this is still being developed and utilities, being very conservative, don’t want to be guinea pigs. And newer technologies tend to have a price premium.

Circling back to the price for the utilities. If they have 1 million customers, they are looking at spending hundreds of millions on the smart grid roll-out (smart meters, communications infrastructure for smart meters, back-end database for data, back-office apps for using the data – customer care, billing, etc.).

One of the big deals about smart grids is that it will help us reduce our consumption – from the utilities perspective, they should invest these large sums of money so we can reduce the amount we purchase from them? You can start to see the difficulties.

TH: What’s the most apparent way a smart grid will change the average person’s daily life? What about the most important way?

You know, the best way a smart grid could change the average person’s life is ‘not a jot’ – apart from reduced utility bills.

Utilities are talking up demand response programs and how they will be able to come into your house or apartment and turn down your air conditioner (for example) at times when supply is short and demand is high. This is a top-down approach destined to piss off customers and will in no way get buy-in from a skeptical public.

Far preferable would be some kind of automated demand response, completely controlled by the consumer, so far example as a homeowner I’d set my dishwasher at 8 PM to come on at 5c per kWh or 5 AM, whichever comes first. As long as the dishes are done by 7 AM, I’m happy. Similarly with other devices. Plenty of loads in the home are movable. You don’t care when your hot water is heated, as long as it is hot when you need it hot. A well lagged (insulated) boiler would mean you could heat it when electricity is cheap, and then use it whenever.

By the way, totally counter-intuitive but cheaper electricity has a higher renewable percentage so actively selecting for cheaper electricity means you are actively selecting for electricity with a higher percentage of renewables in the mix. How does this work?

Well, electricity prices on the wholesale market are very volatile. Consumers are protected from this but electricity prices can fluctuate by orders of magnitude within a 24-hour period. Price is set by good old supply and demand. Demand fluctuates according to day of week, time of day and by season. As the price drops on the wholesale market, it becomes less attractive for more expensive generators (the ones with start-up costs for their generation – the fossil fuel burners, for example) to stay selling in so they drop out. The renewables, on the other hand, are price takers. They don’t have significant start-up costs for generation so they stay in the market no matter what price they get. So, as the price drops, more and more fossil fuel generators drop out and the percentage of renewables in the mix increases!

TH: Other than this change in demand and timing, how will the smart grid help us incorporate renewables into the grid?

Utilities are used to dealing with a situation where their generation (gas coal, oil) is steady and predictable in its output and their customers’ demand is unsteady but generally predictable (demand tomorrow = demand this day last year +1-2%, say).

For various reasons utilities are having to move to a situation where they need to incorporate more renewables into their mix. Renewables generation is not steady and is only slightly predictable (via weather forecasts, for example). Because electricity has to be used as it is generated (can’t be stored, generally), the more unstable the generation, the more unstable the grid.

How can you fix this? Well, one way would be to align the demand with the supply.

How do you do that? …

It is surprisingly easy to leave yourself open to claims of Greenwashing!

Spinning wind power
Photo credit Doxi

Companies need to take a lot of care when making Green claims. The whole Green energy space is massively complex and it is surprisingly easy to leave yourself open to claims of Greenwashing.

What do I mean?

Well, take the Irish energy sector, for example. Anyone who generates electricity in Ireland, which is to be distributed on the grid, is required to sell that power into the wholesale pool – the Single Energy Market (SEM).

Then any retailer who wishes to sell that power to businesses or residential customers, buys the electricity from the pool and sells to their customer base.

Now if you are grid connected in Ireland for your electricity supply (as most organisations are) you get your power from this pool.

Can you see where I am going with this?

Most electricity companies in Ireland do generation as well as retail. Some of them have a significant portfolio of renewable resources (chiefly wind). However, because of the structure of the market, they can’t sell this power directly to consumers, it has to go to the SEM pool first.

When the electricity retailers sell electricity, they have to purchase it from the SEM pool to sell to their customers. Because all electricity sold in Ireland comes from the same SEM pool, everyone has the same percentage of renewables in their supply (unless they have a private supply).

What this means in effect is that you can’t selectively buy renewable electricity in Ireland.

If you see companies saying that their Irish operations are “running on almost 90 percent wind power”, for example, they are either ill-informed, or they are Greenwashing.

If you can’t selectively purchase renewable electricity, what can you do to reduce the carbon footprint of your energy consumption?

Well, the best thing to do then would be to move your loads to times when the percentage of renewable sources in the pool is highest! Any company committing to doing that would be making a bona fide Green statement.


Friday Morning Green Numbers round-up 04/09/2010

Green numbers
Photo credit: Unhindered by Talent

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


When will we have full Smart Grid deployments?

electric cables
Photo credit mckaysavage

Despite a lot of talk and some high profile trials the day we have ubiquitous full Smart Grids is still a long way off.

I attended the Smart Grids Europe conference in Amsterdam this week.

It was a great conference, I met a ton of interesting people and had some fascinating conversations.

I can’t help feeling a little deflated though.

I’m a huge advocate of Smart Grids. I gave my first international talk about Smart Grids and demand side management (Demand Response) at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen back in early 2007. We are now a full three years later and many utility companies have yet to roll out smart meter pilot programs.

Others are rolling out smart meters more because of pending of legislative requirements than because of any desire help reduce people’s energy footprints.

In fact, after talking to more utility companies, I suspect that smart grids may not proceed beyond smart meter deployments in some regions. The recent Oracle survey of Utility CxO’s confirms this view

utilities executives put improving service reliability (45 percent) and implementing smart metering (41 percent) at the top of the list [of Smart Grid priorities]

So why the apparent passive aggressive response from the utility companies?

Well, they have to keep the lights on. To paraphrase the old saw, they do not want to ‘fix’ their grid, if it ain’t broke! And, let’s be fair, the idea of investing large sums of money to help their customers use less of their product isn’t one which sits comfortably with them. That’s understandable.

And no utility wants to have the kind of customer blowback that PG&E saw with their botched smart meter rollout in Bakersfield.

But there is a huge global imperative for Smart Grids – the Smart 2020 report said:

Smart grid technologies were the largest opportunity found in the study and could globally reduce 2.03 GtCO2e , worth €79 billion ($124.6 billion).

How then do we square that circle?

We could legislate for them but a better approach would be to change the landscape in which the utility companies operate such that there is a business case for full smart grid deployments.

I suspect the best approach would be the introduction of a carbon tax. This is something we need to do anyway (and the mechanisms for doing so are a topic for a separate post) but if there were a tax on CO2 production, it would be in utility companies (and their customers) interests to cut back on energy consumption.

Even if there were a strong business case for smart grids, given the glacial speeds at which utility companies move, I suspect it is going to be many years before we see full smart grid implementations.


Forget mobile phone chargers – they are not the problem!

I participated in the recent IBM Global Eco Jam and there were some fantastic discussions there.

One of the discussions surprised me though – people were still talking about unplugging mobile phone chargers as if that was a significant problem. It is not. On the contrary, it is a dangerous distraction.

Watch the video above. Seriously, do. I’ll wait.

The mobile phone chargers I tested all consumed 0.1W or less of electricity when left plugged in and not charging a phone. That is minute.

Sure, I get that if you add up all the millions of mobile phone chargers across the country, all those millions of 0.1W adds up to a significant load. I get that. I do.

LED Light

LED spot light

However, if you change one 50W halogen bulb for a 3.6W LED alternative that is the equivalent of unplugging over 460 mobile phone chargers. And that’s just from changing one bulb. How many bulbs do you have in your house? How many houses are there across the country containing how many bulbs?

Or forget light bulbs. What about the electricity draw of other devices in your house when they are plugged in but not operating (this is called standby power!)?

Well, my microwave consumes 3.5W when plugged in and not in use (that’s 35 mobile phone chargers worth), my printer draws 5.9W when on and not actually printing (59 mobile phone chargers worth), my Nintendo Wii draws a whopping 9.5W when on and not in use (95 mobile phone chargers worth), even cradles for cordless home phones can be consuming eight times more electricity than mobile phone chargers!

Mobile phone chargers, for some reason, seem to have been picked up by people as the bad boys when it comes to standby power. That is a dangerous fallacy. Why dangerous? People who are trying to do the right thing are ensuring that they unplug their mobile phone chargers, potentially unaware that their microwave/printer/games console is consuming orders of magnitude more power than the phone charger.

Switchable power strip

Switchable power strip

Don’t get me wrong, sure you shouldn’t leave your phone charger plugged in, but it is likely that there are far larger standby draws in your home or office you should be aware of. Educate yourself. Find out which of your devices draws the most power

How do you know which devices consume the most power? Find a little plug-in electricity meter to measure the power draw of your appliances, they are quite cheap and easy to find online – check here, here and here, for example. In some cases your local utility company may even supply them.

One of the things I do is to plug multiple devices into a power strip with a switch, this way I can quickly kill their power draw by flipping a single switch.

But stop talking about unplugging mobile phone chargers – by themselves they are a minuscule draw. Unplug everything.


Klaus Heimann espouses SAP’s smart utility of 2020 at International SAP for Utilities conference

I attended the 7th International SAP for Utilities event in Munich last week.

Having attended the SAP for Utilities event in San Antonio last year, I had reasonably high expectations from this conference and I wasn’t disappointed. At the San Antonio event SAP talked very much about the ‘State of the Now’ talking up their, then recently launched, Energy Capital Management software. At this event however, Head of SAP Service Industries, Klaus Heimann keynoted introducing SAP’s vision for the utility company of 2020!

In what was a very forward-looking address, Klaus confidently predicted that:

In two years time this will no longer be a Utilities conference, it will be en Energy conference

This must have had a lot of the people in the room squirming in their seats because, as Klaus himself said, “Utilities are not known as being good at change!”

But change they must.

Just a few of the upcoming major changes utility companies are going to have to cope with include the growing imperative to move to a greater penetration of renewables in the generation mix, the impending explosion in the numbers of electric vehicles to be charged, and the need to roll-out smart grids and take in distributed generation.

Klaus’ vision for the utility company of 2020 is summarised in the video interview I conducted with him above, but briefly he talked of an energy market vastly more complex than today’s. An energy market:

  • where customers can be consumers and producers (via micro-generation)
  • where customers may have shares in a wind-farm which sells electricity to the local utility
  • where customers receive rebates on kWh’s saved during times of peak demand (compared to avg previous day’s use at same time, for example)
  • where utilities will have special renewable-only power offerings (I wish they had that now)
  • where utilities will need to be able to bill customers for energy used to charge electric vehicles, away from home (at the office) or even in different countries and
  • where utilities will need to be able to offer real-time consumption information, generation data and a control interface to the customer’s appliances

Nothing too earth-shattering in that list to be honest. But, when put against the types of changes utilities have gone through in the last 100 years, this is an enormous upheaval. This is probably a good time to be a change management consultant in the utilities sector ;-)

For this vision to become real (and any utilities who don’t start to move in this direction can start writing their own obituaries now), there needs to be massive changes in utilities communications infrastructures and their data handling capabilities.

With big change, comes big opportunities so it is not surprising to see SAP are all over this and helping the utilities visualise where they need to go.


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