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Why COVID-19 induced energy blackouts could be a sign of things to come

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In this third article of our series on the effects of coronavirus on the energy network, we explore how the issues we are facing now could become the norm once climate change takes hold.

By Lawrence Orsini

PART 3: A LONG-TERM CHALLENGE

This problem is not just coronavirus. This is the future.

Some US power networks will struggle to cope with over-demand if people are forced to stay home this summer – but this is just a sign of things to come.

Even if lockdowns ease, networks recover and we avoid high residential load coinciding with peak summer heat, the very fact that infrastructure COULD be pushed so quickly beyond its limits has made the true fragility of energy networks across the US abundantly clear.

As explained in our first article, the coronavirus pandemic is a very real scenario that is increasing demand in certain sections of our energy network and pushing residential areas towards their expected and planned limits.

But similar increases in load will become commonplace year in year out in the future, as global warming pushes our environment towards new limits.

GROWING PRESSURE

Those of us that work in the energy industry have been expecting this issue for some time.

Few envisaged that a dramatic shift in locational power usage due to a pandemic-induced lockdown would be the cause, but the effect was well anticipated.

We just thought we had 3-4 years more to deal with it before it arrived.

Climate change is beginning to cause disruption on energy networks. The pressures we are seeing right now on some parts of the grid due to the lockdown are the same sorts of pressures that are, very soon, likely to become the norm due to shifts in our environmental stability.

Increasing numbers of places are showing above-average temperatures year on year. Not only is that making places warmer, but the relatively small deviations are also causing ‘global ‘weirding’ events, such as hotspots, cold spots, one hundred year storms, and so on, to occur more regularly.

All this is causing major daily and seasonal fluctuations that complicate the management of the electricity grid.

I was in Paris in late spring last year, and during the short time I was there the temperature swayed from the 50s to the mid-80s.

The distribution network operator (DNO) said unpredictable weather is one of their biggest concerns. Grid usage is modeled around temperature, and as that changes, even apparently small-scale influences can quickly destabilize segments of the network.

Temperature management is one of the biggest draws in building energy usage right now (the electrification of transport will become even higher than that, but that discussion point is for later).

In our second article, we discussed how we currently have very limited ability to deliver the immediate emergency responses required to avoid blackouts in some networks when networks are pushed to their limits.

As average annual temperatures rise, peak temperatures fluctuate and extreme scenarios become more regular, we will be facing these situations in increasing numbers.

EUROPE BY EXAMPLE

Going back to Paris, the DNO’s comments provide a crucial insight into the imminent challenges facing our networks.

Temperatures are starting to go out of the ‘mild’ bands in many European countriesAs daily and peak temperatures rise, more people will feel the need for temperature management.

Some European countries have far fewer HVAC units than the US. Many offices regulate temperatures, but most homes do not, particularly in the UK, northern France, Germany. Indeed, some states in the US have much lower HVAC usage than others.

Soon enough, though, in some areas that will have to change.

Then, we will see major energy consuming units making their way onto some of the oldest – and most fragile – networks on the planet.

Not only that, but in already hot regions, such as Texas, temperatures could rise to a scale that induces migration, with people moving to cooler states, causing an increase in population on those networks.

And last but not least is the ‘new normal’ that many expect to come out of the unprecedented situation we are currently in – namely a growth in home working.

With more people at home, more HVACs will be running more often and more devices, such as computers and servers, will be consuming more energy and producing more heat, adding to the cooling demands.

UNPREDICTABLE GRIDS

This rise in temperatures, increased weather unpredictability and shift in usage patterns also coincides with two additional pressures on our networks: renewables growth and vehicle electrification.

As companies, countries and entire nations move towards a carbon-zero future, we are increasingly turning to renewable resources – mostly solar and wind – to replace fossil fuels.

The much spoken about problem with these is their daily and seasonal fluctuation.

Every time the wind blows less or the clouds cover the sun, the generating power of wind turbines and solar PVs drops. The grid has to manage that, minute by minute, and plan for it month by month.

Not only that, but to cope with the demand on renewable power, the focus on solar, in particular, will be as a distributed resource, with solar panels scattered across communities on individual buildings.

Connecting and managing these resources requires an entirely different approach to the existing grid network. But, fortunately, that could actually be used to help ease these future grid pressures.

Similarly, the electrification of vehicles poses a huge increase in electricity demand. The amount of electricity for a full charge depends on the vehicle, but on average it is estimated to be equivalent to running an entire house for a day, or up to three houses in networks where daily use is lower.

But, just like distributed solar panels, these EVs could ease their own pressure points on the network and ultimately be of benefit. To do this, they need to be coordinated to charge at times of low demand, or even to feed excess energy onto the grid when demand is high.

In short, we need everything to be smart.

AUTOMATION AND OPTIMIZATION

As discussed in our second article, in some places network operators have to instigate rolling blackouts when grids reach demand limits.

One way of avoiding this is to encourage communities to build active local energy networks that can deliver ‘manual’ demand response. These communities can be asked to turn off non-essential items to reduce use at times of high demand.

The only way this can happen is if the consumer is educated as to the consequences of their energy use, and incentivized – either financially or morally – to reduce it at times of need.

But manual operation is simply not manageable as a permanent solution – and as mentioned at the top of this article, we have about 3-4 years until some places will need that permanent solution.

That’s not long. So with our options limited, we have to move fast.

Re-building our electricity networks is simply not cost effective or even possible within the timeframe we have – so this all points to a need to optimize the existing network.

The biggest issue at the edge of the network is thermal – and time shifting this can dramatically reduce energy peaks.

In the near term we can use induction or heat pump hot water heaters for thermal storage. This enables us to heat water in low peak usage times and to soak up excess energy produced by large scale renewables rather than curtailing them. We can then use that pre-heated water rather than heating it in times of high demand.

We can also do the same with thermal ice storage, cooling a solution off-peak and using it to cool buildings in peak hours; and more simply, in well insulated properties, we can pre cool rooms, running an HVAC in off-peak times so it just needs to maintain temperature, not super-cool, during peak times.

Additionally, we really need our buildings to give us the services we need, when we need them – and not when we don’t.

We need to be able to walk into a room and have the light switch on; we need to moderate the temperature in the spaces we’re in and not in the spaces we’re not in; we need heaters or HVAC units to turn off when we leave our homes; we need to coordinate EVs to charge or discharge based on the amount of demand on the network.

A lot of the tech we need is already available – smart thermostats, lighting, appliances, refrigerators, battery storage, and so on. And much of it is very simple and increasingly cost-effective to retro fit.

If all these solutions are operated as part of an automated smart network, we can deliver demand response right down to a device-by-device level.

But we probably need 30 percent of our building stock to be smart to make this work. And we need all these devices to be able to talk to each other – which, currently, they do not.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Smart technology has grown in an unfiltered, unorganized and largely unregulated way.

That has led to a large range of devices on the market and a large number of different systems producing different data, communicating in different ways, much of which is not compatible with other data.

Over the last half year, I have outfitted my home with every different IoT device I could get my hands on.

I have devices from different brands, running off different bands (Bluetooth, 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz wireless) and using different specific apps to make them function.

In all, I have around 120 different connected devices.

Just the sheer number creates cross talk, and when it comes to connecting them, there is no standard data format, the level of sophistication in control scenarios is limited and, generally, they simply don’t work well together (a fact that creates regular and understandable frustration for my very considerate wife!).

I’ve been looking at bugs in the way they talk to each other and been building a control system to take the individual data from one control system and make it work with other different individual data from another.

It can be done; but to make a real difference we need a simple universal solution that makes smart systems simple for the everyday consumer to use.

First things first, though. The opportunity we have right now, due to the coronavirus induced challenges networks are facing, is a big one.

We can use it to explain how important energy – or the LOSS of it – is to our lives; we can use the growing community spirit to help people learn how their combined actions can help us manage energy better; and we can use that to instigate a tidal wave of change.

This unprecedented moment is all about making community-based demand response happen to solve the immediate problem.

But what we REALLY need to do is to use it to help solve a growing long-term problem.

We need to connect with, educate and engage energy users – particularly the Gen-Z and Millennial population who will drive this change – and we need to build some serious consumer-driven momentum.

Only then will the demand for change be strong enough to instigate the rapid regulatory change we need to make it happen.

And we need to start NOW – because that problem is going to be with us sooner than many people think.

IN OUR NEXT ARTICLE, WE EXPLAIN HOW REGULATORS CAN HELP ACCELERATE, STEER AND MANAGE THE GROWTH OF LOCAL ENERGY…

Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 12, 2020

The only way this can happen is if the consumer is educated as to the consequences of their energy use, and incentivized – either financially or morally – to reduce it at times of need.

Much as I wish it were otherwise, I'm not sure appealing to people morally about 'doing the right thing for the grid' would lead to results, nor would it be an enduring solution as it really should be the grid operators who shoulder that burden as much as possible. That said, the financial incentive model could definitely work and create happy customers and a happy grid. Do you think the initiative for making this a reality is purely at the utilities, or might regulators start to get more involved to push the affordable demand response tools as well (particularly if they might be able to save money for lower income households through creative demand response methods)?

Lawrence Orsini's picture

Thank Lawrence for the Post!

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