The utility world may not be changing at the speed of light but it is certainly evolving more rapidly than it has in decades. That’s because the tools now exist to allow managers to gather a gargantuan amount of information and to analyze that data.
That, in turn, has a profound implications. One of the most notable is the ability direct electrons to where they need to be, which not only avoids brownouts but which also makes room for wind and solar energy. And in a world that is carbon conscious and that is trying to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, the advances can’t come soon enough.
“We believe the future world is relying much more on electrification,” Roland Busch, chief technology officer at Siemens, told an audience in Chicago this past week. “We are automating everything. Digital service tells where something is wrong and it won’t let parts run down before you have to repair or replace them.”
He adds that the pace of such progress is happening now every 3-to-5 years — a time frame that is getting shorter.
Analytics is hastening the trend. It is growing in importance when it comes to running businesses. It’s not just that the number of Internet-connected devices is increasing. It’s also that the amount of information is overwhelming and that it must be harnessed in the cloud, or a centrally-located data bank. Technically, it is part of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Companies use it to reduce greenhouse emissions and to increase the efficiencies of their facilities. Schneider Electric joined with GreenBiz to survey nearly 240 companies with revenues of $100 million or more a year. About 85% of respondents said they are taking action over the next three years to reduce their carbon footprints. Some of those are implementing more advanced technologies to manage energy and emissions such as cloud-based data-sharing tools.
CenterPoint Energy, for example, said it needs accurate greenhouse gas emissions reports. By using IoT, it has been able to get those reports in two weeks — down from two months.
“In the past we have always talked about hardware,” Tim Holt, president of Siemens Power Generation told this writer in an interview at the conference. “Now we talk about digitization,” or the software to allow data to be harnessed and analyzed.
The Real World
It’s one thing for the electrical engineers to understand the intricacies of the grid. And it’s quite another for the policymakers who have set ambitious climate targets and renewable energy thresholds. The ultimate aim is to provide electricity and economic opportunities for the globe’s population. But doing so means finding the right balance between grid reliability and clean power generation.
In other words, wind and solar energies are contingent upon the weather, which means that they must be firmed up with generation that can kick on in a moment’s notice -- typically a fast-starting natural gas plant. Grid managers are thus challenged with how to guarantee that climate goals are being met while also compensating for intermittent fuel sources.
California, for example, wants 50% of its energy to come from renewable energies by 2030. For this to work, utilities must be able to communicate with large industrial, commercial and residential consumers of electricity to give them a head’s up as to when to curtail usage.
Digitization takes this a step further by giving managers the software they need so that they can gather information from multiple sources before they upload that data onto a common platform. From there, it is assessed and then leveraged to enable more informed decision making. The analytics might be used to establish trends in wind patterns, which would necessitate adjusting the position of wind turbines.
“We need intelligence in the grid to manage this,” Lisa Davis, president of Siemens USA told this writer. “Once we have data on the cloud, it is about creating value.
“We are responding to our customers,” she continues. “And our customers are responding to the environment they are living in. They may be responding to subsidies or the need to have a co-generation plant or a separate grid. There are different influences in the energy system.”
Progressive companies have the capacity to collect and analyze data as well as to integrate decision making throughout their geographically-spread business operations. Consider AEG, which is a global sports and entertainment company that is using those tools to cut its carbon footprint: Since 2010, cloud-based solutions along with energy procurement programs have saved it a total of $3 million, it said, while also cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 14%.
To be sure, other experts say that the emphasis ought to focus more on hardware solutions, as opposed to using software and grid analytics. Andrew Scobie, chief executive at Emergent, told this writer that electricity is simply a commodity. That is, Starbucks doesn’t notify its customers during slow periods so that can they save money. Electricity consumers don’t think in such terms either.
He doesn’t argue with the original premise — that the ultimate aim is to reach the goals of the global climate talks. But he cautions that in today’s world, it is hard for the electrical system to accommodate a 30% renewable energy mix. The solutions are either adding to the grid’s architecture or creating a network that balances itself — the same way a phone bank might route calls.
He would replace the aging transformers with the equivalent of routers, or tools called Faradayexchanges that channel the electricity to where it must go. “You can literally route energy from anywhere to anywhere,” Scobie says, “which doubles the amount of renewables that can be injected into the grid.”
Fostering innovation is at the heart of the clean energy revolution. And it will be core to mitigating the effects of climate change. The pace of change is picking up and leading to a host of new eco-friendly options — ideas that will invariably improve with time. Indeed, a demanding market means that electricity providers are compelled to provide cleaner energy at lower cost.
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19 December 2018
20 December 2018