Rethinking the grid
As the power grid comes under increasing pressure and urbanisation drives the construction of more and more buildings, society will have to find a new way to supply and manage energy consumption. Trevor de Vries, MD of 3W Power/AEG Power Solutions SA, believes the answer lies in distributed generation.
Also called on-site generation, dispersed generation, decentralised generation, decentralised energy or distributed energy, distributed generation produces electricity from many small energy sources. De Vries sees it as the solution for looming energy problems, like cascading outages and systemic collapse. “By distributing smaller generating capacity at multiple locations, the pitfalls of relying on a single remote source of power are greatly reduced.”
He argues that the economies of scale historically offered by central power plants have been declining for decades, and that central plants can no longer deliver competitively cheap and reliable electricity to more remote customers through the grid.
“The right-sized resources, for individual customers, distribution substations, or micro-grids, are able to offer important but little-known economic advantages,” says De Vries. “Distributed generation reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated right where it is used, and any excess can be fed back into the grid. This provides a financial benefit as well as an environmental benefit.”
While the idea of independent energy producers selling power back into the grid has been around for some time, the advent of cost-effective solar installations has made the concept of distributed generation increasingly viable, he says. “Distributed generation allows the collection of energy from many sources and provides lower environmental impacts and improved security of supply.”
De Vries adds that using alternative electricity generation makes not only environmental but also business sense. “The size of most commercial and industrial buildings makes them ideal for the installation of large-scale industrial solar power plants, and by making use of the space available to them, these businesses can not only capture huge amounts of energy, but also sell that energy back into the main grid.”
Ravi Bhat, software group executive for IBM SA, sees De Vries' vision developing into a scenario where buildings choose their own sources of energy. “Think of it as an Energy Caf'e - making energy choices will be as easy as ordering a frappuccino.
“Today, most coffee shops offer us free WiFi. Tomorrow's energy caf'e will provide access to what Thomas Friedman has dubbed the 'Energy Internet',” says Bhat.
The Energy Internet is a low-carbon, community-wide distributed energy system, he explains. “Rather than using one form of renewable energy, it incorporates a number of forms. Just like customers who order which type of food and beverage they want based on cost and source (such as 'organic' or 'conventional'), we'll be able to do the same with energy sources.”
This will allow organisations to more dynamically choose their source of energy at their desired price based on incentives, time of use and so forth, says Bhat.
X-ray energy vision
These considerations will become increasingly important as urban infrastructure continues to boom, notes Bhat. He points out that buildings are massive energy users, with experts estimating that commercial and residential buildings consume one-third of the world's energy.
“If worldwide energy use trends continue, buildings will become the largest consumer of global energy by 2025, more than the transportation and industrial sectors combined. Massive urbanisation is driving this momentum.”
For this reason, intelligent energy management systems could serve as a vital complement to distributed generation solutions.
“Technology today can make it possible to 'listen' to the abundance of information emitted from buildings,” notes Bhat. “Through analysing this data and creating new applications to access it, we can squeeze out building inefficiencies to reduce cost, improve energy usage, and make buildings better places to live and work.”
He explains that, typically, businesses and residents find out how much water and energy they use after the fact - by looking at last month's utility bills. “In the future, new technologies will help occupants of smarter buildings have more 'x-ray vision' of what they are using versus what other community members typically use.”
These advanced metering and monitoring systems will enable a real-time view into actual usage, says Bhat. “This transparency also allows facility managers to make adjustments and repairs before issues appear.”
De Vries says distributed generation, and especially renewable-based technologies, will continue to gain in popularity due to technology advances, environmental benefits, political support and growing energy awareness.
“Utilities need to prepare themselves for this increased penetration of renewable energy through the investigation and application of smart grid solutions. By proactively embracing these changes, utilities can begin to shape the myriad of planning and operating approaches that maximise the potential long-term benefits of large-scale solar installations to both the utility and its customers.”