The future grid is about more than just smart meters

The future grid is about more than just smart meters

As the energy sector heads into unpredictable territory with climate change, peak demand and the looming death spiral, new models and scenarios of possible energy futures are emerging. One recent scenario-planning exercise was the CSIROs Future Grid Forum, which set out "to inform and inspire a national conversation and provide a way forward for the sector, its stakeholders and, most importantly, all Australians".

The forum proposed four scenarios for our future in 2050 "that have far-reaching implications for the current and future electricity supply chain and would alter the electricity system in Australia".

These were listed as:

    set and forget where consumers rely on utilities
    rise of the prosumer where consumers actively design or customise solutions
    leaving the grid where consumers disconnect from the grid
    renewables thrive where storage plays a large part in entire electricity system.

A uniting theme between these scenarios is their focus on technologies specifically smart ones. Various combinations of automated devices, renewable generation, micro-grids, electric vehicles and battery storage feature in these possible futures.

While this may be exactly what we expect from an exercise promising to imagine the Future Grid in 2050, it nonetheless masks a bigger and absolutely crucial question: how might we live in 35 years time? In taking everyday life largely out of the equation, we are unintentionally invited to forget how intimately entwined energy systems are with changing expectations, domestic technologies and everyday practices. We are invited to forget that the very problems the Future Grid seeks to address are in fact an outcome of changing ways of life.

What can happen in 35 years? A lot. Lets take a home-based example: the household air-conditioner. Residential air-conditioning penetration more than doubled over a 10-year period around the turn of the 21st century, leading to increases in electricity prices resulting from rising peak demand on hot summer days. This is not a trivial point. One of the most often-cited reasons given to justify the need for the future smart grid is increased air-conditioning peak demand that is, changing expectations for cooling. Our energy system is getting a shake up because of changing ways of life.

So what does the next 35 years hold? What will everyday life look like in 2050? And how might this change the very problems the energy sector is trying to address? Here is one possible scenario to ponder.

Stay-at-home pets

Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world. There are 4.2 million dogs and 3.3 million cats, and of these 92% of cats and 76% of dogs are kept exclusively or partly indoors. Simultaneously, pets are becoming increasingly humanised. Dogs and cats go to grooming salons, play iPad games, eat gourmet meats, and have their own fashion accessories, electric toys and heated mats. Pet care is a booming and growing business: in the United States alone, the industry is worth $US50 billion, having almost doubled in a decade.

Part of this humanisation of our furred companions involves increasing concern for the health and comfort of pets. Heating and air-conditioned kennels are marketed alongside an emerging trend towards heating and cooling homes or rooms exclusively, or partly, for pets. A 2013 study released by E.ON UK on hot-dogs and thermo-cats found that more than half (52%) of UK dog and cat owners increase the temperature for their pets when they leave the home.

One reasonable prediction for the future is therefore that stay-at-home pets could have their own heated/cooled indoor environments by 2050.

What would this mean for the Future Grid? Several things. If houses are thermally regulated 24/7 (for animals and humans), or if stay-at-home pets have extra heating and cooling, this could contribute to a flattening of peak demand, and/or a possible increase in average (daily) demand.

Predicting the future

Whether this scenario will unfold or not is unknown. My assumptions are based on a cursory examination of past and emerging practices, which are not always a strong indicator of the future. Other changing trends, such as increasing stay-at-home childcare and home-based e-work, might also change future patterns of electricity demand in the home. And it is highly possible that something we dont even know about yet will change things further. Nonetheless, this scenario is no more fantastical, reliable or rigorous than scenarios which propose ways in which future energy technologies will unfold.

Does any of this actually matter? Well yes, it does. Different speculations about changing ways of life potentially change or dissolve the very problems that new smart energy technologies are seeking to fix. In the stay-at-home pets scenario, peak electricity demand and the need for the Future Grid may not be an issue at all.

The point is not to accurately predict the future, but to plan for possible scenarios. The inherent uncertainty and changeability of everyday life points towards a need for adaptable, resilient and flexible power systems than can cope with different possibilities.

More importantly, in speculating on future ways of life, we create the opportunity to realise different futures and potentially intervene in these scenarios. By envisioning a future revolving around smart energy technologies, we narrow our thinking to ways in which we can support, challenge or solve energy issues using these technologies. In scenarios featuring different ways of life we are invited to engage with, and potentially help realise, a much broader set of pathways for our future.

Source: Climate Spectator

SMART GRID Bulletin March 2017

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