What do a transformer and telecommunications have in common, or the weather and washing machines, a wind turbine and a fuel cell or even a co-generation plant and the energy exchange?
Many of the smartest heads at research institutions, utility companies and industrial firms are hard at work addressing these issues and more as they strive to outline precisely how things need to mesh in order to ensure that energy generation, distribution and consumption stay balanced around the clock.
For their part, the organizers of HANNOVER MESSE have been giving thought to how everything can all come together at Energy 2016 – the leading international trade fair for integrated energy systems and mobility. The Integrated Energy Plaza will provide plenty of answers and feature promising scenarios for intelligent collaboration across multiple components as a prerequisite for the integrated energy systems of the future.
One of the main reasons for the buzz is the growing volume of locally generated electricity. Grid operators are suffering from the need to tweak grid operations on a very frequent basis, such as when solar power is running at full power and feeding roughly 40,000 megawatts of installed capacity into the grid – a load that is greater than total German consumption on some Sundays. Add in wind power, and the grid can start to collapse due to the lack of storage capacity for the surplus energy.
The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, headed by Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), reports:
"Renewable energy is set to become the primary source of energy in Germany. The objective is for renewable energy to account for at least 80 percent of the total by the year 2050. Renewable energy must be integrated into the supply system on an ongoing basis so that it can gradually replace conventional energy. This requires a fundamental restructuring of the supply system. Making the supply of energy reliable, environmentally friendly and economically efficient is one of the great challenges of the energy transition. The specific goals of system integration for renewable energy are:
- Reliable network operation with a high percentage of renewable energy
- Increased flexibility in electricity generation and demand
- Intelligent cooperation between power generators, consumers and modern grids
- Efficient use of existing grid infrastructure
The need for high-voltage north/south power transmission lines (either above or below ground) to handle the increasing share of wind power from offshore wind farms is a major issue, but is eclipsed by the fact that, by 2050, nearly seven million photovoltaic systems – representing 200,000 megawatts of installed capacity – are predicted to be feeding into a grid that is already handling 90 percent power of its total capacity from renewable sources.
This is on top of current grid problems due to a share of roughly 35 percent of electricity from solar, wind, etc. and feed-in from 1.5 million photovoltaic systems. The problems can therefore be expected to grow, and with them the costs, unless intelligent solutions can be found first. A number of pilot projects will explore potential solutions. One of them – the "Smart Operator" project in the Wertachau colony near Augsburg – is unique in Germany, say its proponents.
"Smart Operator – the intelligent grid of the future" is the project's official name. It launched in May 2012 and is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2016. RWE Deutschland and its subsidiary LEW (Lechwerke), a regional utility in Augsburg, are the project's sponsors. A total of 125 households in Wertachau signed up for the trial. 23 of them have photovoltaic systems on their roofs; all have intelligent power meters, with heat pumps for heating air and water. Intelligent washers, dryers and dishwashers have all been installed, as well as power storage units and charging stations for electric autos. The proposed typical single family homeowner of the future will combine all of this in their own household: the photovoltaic system on the roof is tied to the battery storage unit in the basement, which optimizes the internal use of solar power.
The storage unit knows when it needs power for the household appliances, the heat pump or the electric vehicle. The colony is covered by an umbrella Smart Operator that is the heart of the field study, and which jumps in when the household cannot handle certain items on its own. It ensures that power generation and consumption are in balance. It achieves this by working with hundreds of signals from the grid on a minute-by-minute and self-learning basis, using that information to issue commands to the connected units. And it always has access to the local weather forecast.
So far, the Wertachau project has proven effective: Roughly 30 percent of the surplus solar power has been used locally thanks to storage and load shifting, eliminating the need to feed in to the local power grid. Although the insights from the small colony can certainly be scaled up to millions of households throughout Germany, the individual solutions found in Wertachau are less transferable. Standardized interfaces to intelligent devices need to be developed, and the energy economy in general will require digitization. And what's happening in the households there is all the more possible in commercial and industrial settings faced with the need to for integrated systems of power generation and consumption.
Even still, the same question keeps coming up: When will large-scale energy storage become a must, no matter whether in the form of batteries or power-to-gas or power-to-heat. As is often the case with issues raised by the energy transition, expert opinion is divided on this question, but there is no disagreement on the need for greater flexibility in generation and consumption.
For this to work, digitalization is the essential key to energy management. There is already an initial (albeit controversial) draft law in place which seeks to create the overall conditions needed, but legislation is only one part of the equation, and suitable business models are the other. Integrated energy systems are still in their infancy, and digital innovations could help them soar. These innovations will be in full view at HANNOVER MESSE 2016, where everyone involved can grasp just how the energy generation, distribution, storage and even mobility can go hand in hand.