Why Local Energy Needs Wider Collaboration

Local Energy, International Collaboration

As energy generation becomes localized, the need for regional and international collaboration is more critical than ever.  

This was a key theme I saw at the Grid Meets Renewables Conference and Fair I had the pleasure of attending in Brussels last week. As energy becomes more distributed, larger network collaboration, data sharing, and bringing more stakeholders to the table will be key to integrating more energy resources effectively, yet quickly on the grid without sacrificing reliability.

More renewable energy, more power flows to manage

The Irony of Distributed Energy

While Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) provide promise of more local energy solutions, the result of multiple smaller generators coming online in more diverse geographic zones is that the number of players in the game is increasing and monitoring is needed on a much wider scale.

“Regional Bubbles” without coordination will only create more issues in the integration of variable energy flows as each region would only focus on their own development of DERs (that sometimes results in sub-optimal placement of assets). Top this off with barriers to entry decreasing for new cleantech players plus the growing visibility of the grid, and the need for collaboration between utilities, SMEs, and NGOs continues to rise.

Uncorrelated variability of resources across a large area is in itself a storage of energy
— Carl Zichella, NRDC
Geospatial diversity has been shown to counteract, to an extent, the variability of renewable generators

Geospatial diversity has been shown to counteract, to an extent, the variability of renewable generators

With the variability of energy sources such as solar and wind, and as was demonstrated in studies on the Western and Eastern Interconnects, a wide asset distribution that usually spans several utility territories is needed to counteract uncorrelated variability. These were the key learnings brought by Carl Zichella of the Natural Resource Defence Council who developed a tool to help utilities plan further interconnections. This is also backed up, though specifically for wind energy, in the following Stanford study:

The probability of no wind power production due to low wind speed events may be greatly reduced (if not eliminated) by a network of wind farms.
— Archer and Jacobson, 2003

As the resources become distributed, the days of managing a small network of large power assets within a region are over. The oversupply of energy in one region could be transferred to another region where DERs have scaled down, and vice-versa. However, in addition to more interconnection, the better predictability of renewable assets needs to be realized, and this can only be done with the analysis of increasingly complex data sets.

Increasing Predictability

With more assets connected to the grid comes not only more energy sources, but also more data flows that need to be monitored and analyzed. However, there exists a discrepancy between utilities that have experience in integrating DERs, and those that are earlier in the learning curve for these technologies. To ensure the most advanced knowledge is accessible to all, the open sharing of power flow data among key stakeholders will be needed to help everyone better understand and contribute to the balancing of the grid (this includes any power producers, or independent prosumers).

This is not only limited to power production data, but also to weather data that will need more data points (beyond the monitoring of installations) to better predict power flows. One example shown by Tennet (one of Europe’s TSOs) was the use of sensors in cars to create more data points for weather prediction – perhaps more solutions such as this where “underutilized” data is translated to power profiles will be developed.

Innovative approaches to data gathering will be needed to improve predictability

Beyond prediction and learning for grid integration, the open sharing of data will also allow for the development of more advanced energy management platforms to improve the resilience of the grid – some could include blockchain (IOTA, Exergy, or Electron), Artificial Intelligence (Alpiq is currently working on this), a marriage of the two technologies, or something else entirely. Of course, even though many possible solutions will be developed, those that do not work must be quickly passed over in favour of those that clearly provide meaningful benefit to the grid. In turn, these will improve the accuracy of forecasts and management of variable energy flows on the broader scale that is needed to facilitate integration.

Artificial intelligence will play a key role in the energy grid of the future

But these are only the technical aspects of collaboration that are needed. One factor to consider is that as the “grid” becomes more visible with DERs and infrastructure being built, the inclusion of non-traditional stakeholders will become key.

Beyond Technical Collaboration

Technology and cost will not be the main issues in renewable energy development, but public acceptance and appropriate policies
— Ditlev Engel, DNV-GL

There is no question that any power grid is an extremely complex system (the “Power Systems” Series on Springer has over 80 large volumes on the topic, to name one example), and it will only become more complex with more power flows. Much like the internet, a complicated interconnected web is used by the public that expects reliability and affordability (the brutal reality is that sustainability is a lower priority, in general, than these other two factors). However, unlike the hidden back-end of the internet, energy installations are quite visible, such as power lines, wind turbines, and solar farms.

The more we learned about how the grid works, the more we were able to contribute
— Carl Zichella, NRDC

Renewable energy targets are one thing, but what about all of the other issues that come with it? 

As distributed energy visibility grows, so too does the visibility of the power grid, and hence the need for the participation of more stakeholders. This also means a growing necessity to “translate” some of the highly technical factors of the power grid to a more accessible level and allow for more meaningful participation from a larger audience. The terms kilowatts and kilowatt-hours are well known, but what about reactive power, power inertia, and frequency response - factors that are key to grid operation? (I’m still working to understand their intricacies and interplays myself). But, why bother collaborating with non-technical entities? Why bother putting in the effort to make sure all stakeholders have at least a cursory understanding of the “why” behind the power grid?

Public engagement needs to be done increasingly well, but it is getting harder to be successful at
— Dr. Eva Schmid, Policy Advisor Power Grids and Low-Carbon Policy, Germanwatch
Public engagement is becoming increasingly important, but also increasingly difficult

Public engagement is becoming increasingly important, but also increasingly difficult

In short, because non-technical entities are becoming more involved in the power grid and will continue to do so as distributed generation (and further power infrastructure) becomes more visible. Of course, this also means that the number of stakeholders who support renewable energy projects for “being green” are decreasing. Instead, it could mean more cases like the ones in Minnesota concerning “stray voltage”, or further political pushback. There are surveys out there that suggest the majority of the public supports renewable energy (such as these U.K., U.S., and Canadian studies), but as DERs develop, perhaps “favouring renewables” really translates to: “I like the idea, and someone ought to do it – but nowhere near me.”

It also doesn’t help that the Edelman Trust Barometer in 2017 found that “trust is in crisis around the world. The general population’s trust in all four key institutions — business, government, NGOs, and media — has declined broadly, a phenomenon not reported since Edelman began tracking trust among this segment in 2012.” This trend has remained stagnant so far in 2018. This trust, in general, is needed for renewables to be successful. Perhaps this could be further transparency in cost structures, or instilling a sense of ownership among more stakeholders? One suggestion that was even offered at Grid Meets Renewables was that developers and utilities need to go beyond what regulations state in terms of engagement and collaboration with local entities.

The brutal reality of business is that often the mindset is to do what is regulated, and nothing more, but perhaps to increase trust and buy-in from stakeholders going above and beyond is needed. Either way, the transition to distributed energy cannot be done in isolation. Initiatives such as the Renewables Grid Initiative, and the Co-Operative Energy Experiences in Denmark and Sweden aim to bring together stakeholders to this end.

Can't Do it Alone

The European grid is the most complex in the world, and we need to make it even more complex to integrate renewable energy
— Eliano Russo, Enel-X

The European energy grid is a complex machine

The current level of collaboration that has been occurring (and is still needed) for the European grid is truly fascinating considering that there are 43 Transmission System Operators (TSOs) from 36 Countries, and over 2,600 Distribution System Operators (DSOs). In terms of interconnected grid, so far 17 countries are on track to make, or have reached, the target of 10% or more of their energy being available for export to other countries. However, there is still a long way to go for a truly “European Grid”. In North America, there are currently no “national” grids in Canada and the U.S. (Smil, Energy and Civilization), though interconnects exist on the east and west coasts (the difference in land mass plays into this).

As distributed generation begins to proliferate, the number of energy flows, and the data needed to integrate them effectively will require deeper collaboration between stakeholders. This not only includes the incumbent players, but also smaller players taking advantage of lower barriers to entry, NGOs, and members of the public. As energy becomes more visible, the number of stakeholders that need to be considered will continue to grow. Reliability mandates that renewables are integrated effectively, yet climate targets mandate that it is done quickly. The only way quick and effective integration can be done is through collaboration on the many new fronts that arise. To this end, Jochen Kreusel of ABB put is frankly:  

There is a need for humility in the journey ahead – we’ve never done this before, and there will be many surprises along the way
— Jochen Kreusel, ABB