Is an Integrated Energy Network the future?

Paul Baruya responds to the ideas presented in the Energy Science Lecture on 2 October by Dr Arshad Mansoor, senior vice president of R&D at Electric Power Research Institute, EPRI. On an unusually sunny afternoon, we set out for the Royal Society of Engineers, near St James’s Park, London, the venue for a day of academic lectures and an enlightening presentation from Dr Arshad Mansoor of the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). There was a promise of music and dance during his presentation which added an air of intrigue. While there was the entertaining prospect of ‘dad’ dancing by the mainly academic audience, thankfully we refrained, but were nonetheless entertained by a 1 hour talk on integrated energy networks.

Market integration is a buzzword used in the media and by policy makers to refer to many aspects of the energy markets, such as cross border trade, distributed generation of intermittent solar and wind power, electricity storage, and smart metering. Apparently, in the future these are meant to provide a stable supply of electricity. However few people have conveyed the meaning of integration properly, or with the same clarity, until today. Integrated Energy Networks are far reaching, and don’t consider the technical feasibility of integrating every energy user with every energy supplier, but expand the concept to the challenges and consequences of a fully electric economy and consumer behaviour.

Dr Mansoor started by presenting the concept of decarbonisation through the electrification of all economic and social activity, replacing all the fossil fuel used in residential, commercial, transport and industrial processes. Electricity is estimated to account for 20% of primary energy (18.5% actually). But as part of the process of decarbonisation, western policy makers are committed to  making this proportion 100%, especially with the introduction of the new EU Winter package (never mind the 600 million citizens without any electricity in India, and many millions more across the world). Decarbonisation as it appears today involves putting a lot of faith in intermittent power generators and energy storage to deliver all the power needed. Without the steady, and reactive abilities of fossil fuel power paired with carbon capture and storage (CCS), Dr Mansoor argues that this simply won’t be possible.

At the same time, the electrification of society is happening with the desire by European policy makers to close coal fired power in the region. The political support to mass-install personal rooftop solar power and switch to electric vehicles (EV) is immensely strong here. What a vision. So business models are changing. Once focussed on fewer large energy companies delivering reliable and stable electricity and energy, the future is now looking more disaggregated, where personal assets are entering the business economy collectively and replacing the traditional model of ‘big energy’.

There is some evidence of this happening elsewhere. To illustrate, the largest taxi firm in the world is Uber, and the largest hotel chain by room numbers is arguably Airbnb. Personal property is now for rent and offering opportunities for enterprising individuals to earn extra income. An unexpected customer base has also emerged which is willing to enter a car or an apartment belonging to a stranger. People are prepared to have fewer safeguards to get the same core product cheaper and to access it via the true game changer in the world – the smartphone.

The cloud-based life is a step in a new direction. Steve Jobs had a vision of people living their lives through smartphones. Apps are now very much a part of our lives. We can delete and add them as we see fit, and internet-based business has already disrupted the traditional model of high street retail.

Dr Mansoor does not see the disappearance of the large energy suppliers as major contributors of electricity if utilities can keep pace with change. I can’t help thinking that if rooftop solar starts to saturate electricity networks, controlling grid stability may mean a new way for rooftop solar owners to engage with the grid. Maybe more of us with personal power generators will sign up to contracts that give grid operators greater influence of when we use our electricity and how. Perhaps people will surrender more of their output to the grid when the power grid needs it. The UK telecommunications and entertainment company BT did this with their local Wi-Fi services, generously sharing part of the broadband service of some personal routers to allow members of the public to use this extensive network.

If we transfer this model to the home power generation model, how will this obligation to supply the grid affect our abilities to charge up our EVs, or warm our electrically heated homes once we’ve fully electrified our societies? Will poorer households give up their electricity and in return accept a lower power tariff to allow wealthier premium tariff neighbours to warm up their houses instead?

Perhaps the challenge has not been thought through by our policy advisors for the single goal of meeting CO2 targets. However, if the public are willing to go for a cheaper, less regulated taxi service like Uber, they might also support the drip drip of solar power from millions of small solar panels. Lower quality music after all was accepted by millions of iPod owners, no one but audio experts noticed; but you might notice if your electricity supplies drop off when all your neighbours are fast charging their cars at the same time. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, that then puts all our faith in energy storage.

Next is the question of urbanisation. Dr Mansoor stated that urbanisation is no longer defined by the migration of populations from rural areas to cities, but the shift of production of food and materials to the regions using it. Indoor agriculture could move some food production to empty industrial facilities near or within metropolitan areas. This cannot be done without electricity and could prove highly inefficient. What if we relieved the grid of this demand and capture heat, water, and CO2 from a coal or gas-fired station, using all the emitted waste to stimulate food production in areas closer to where this food is consumed? This reduces the pressure on rural agriculture land, and the consequent use of pesticides, transportation, water and so on. The solutions are endless, but do not require the elimination of fossil fuels in this case. When properly integrated, all energy supplies have a role to play; it’s not all about CO2, but mostly.

While engineers and analysts talk of game changers like energy storage, they fail to spot the real game changer: the way individuals will participate in society and even the energy system using smart phones. Apps to manage and deliver power to the grid could be as common as ordering an Uber, but with that will come a responsibility to be part of the bigger picture. Just as we will draw from the grid and our roof top solar panels to charge up our cars overnight, we will have to give something back with much greater frequency to help others do the same. That is the real consequence of being in an integrated energy system.

Here is a video from EPRI, used to illustrate some of the points in the lecture.