Girish Shivakumar: The electric grid, prosumers and climate change risks
Electricity generation accounts for nearly 50% of CO2 emissions in the world. Renewable Energy (RE) sources have begun to account for a significant share in the grid mix thereby reducing the emissions Year on Year (YoY). An increasing RE in the electric grid is not a straight solution to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. RE is intermittent and in order to completely leverage it there is a need for a technological solution that also captures the economic benefits of this low carbon transition.
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The electric grid of today
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In most parts of the world the electric grid is predominantly unidirectional with a small percentage of bidirectional flow originating from grid connected rooftop systems. Even with increase in RE in the grid the impact on climate change mitigation will remain insignificant if the end consumer doesn’t interact with the system.
The electric grid of the future
The transition to a low carbon world implies switching to a fuel source that is not only environment friendly but is free thereby reducing the overall operational costs in the long run. The grid infrastructure wouldn’t transfer the net benefit unless there is a seamless bidirectional communication between the source and the consumer in other words it has to turn into a ‘smart grid’.
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According to EPRI “Smart grid represents, the migration from the current grid with its one-way power flows from central generation to dispersed loads, towards a new grid with two-way power flows., two way and peer to peer customer interactions, distributed generation, distributed intelligence, command and control”
Installing distributed energy systems like solar photovoltaic panels empowers people to shift from being a passive consumer of electricity to a Prosumer who sells power to the utility. The financial incentives like Feed in Tariff (FiT) are quite popular around the world. But the real potential of such systems will be leveraged when technological advancements like smart grids are in place and smart meters are the norm.
In the evolving connected world every device around us is turning smart and its quite natural that the source powering them all is smart too (if not smarter). Germany and Italy have been pioneers in smart meter implementation, the former driven by a buoyant adoption of rooftop solar PV.
Why do we need a smart grid?
RE is intermittent as widely known. In an ideal case we would prefer power production at times when we consume. In real world to meet power demand when RE generation is low there is a need to look for alternatives which in general happens to be turning on the fossil fuel power plants just to ‘keep the lights on’ as the utility would claim.
In order to mitigate the potential damage caused by these scenarios it is critical to ensure the fossil fuel powered plants are not turned on, let alone operate them at a lower efficiency thereby compounding the damage. Battery storage will be a key breakthrough but unless the devices and the grid is in place, the net effect of energy storage will be minimal.
Can prosumers make an impact?
Technology at the RE generator level enables forecasting at a better accuracy on a day ahead level. The information if shared to the consumers by utilities along with the price incentive will enable them to shift loads to low price periods thereby reducing the net overall demand. Demand Side Management (DSM) is another possibility considering the penetration of smart meters at residential consumer level. Utilities and DSM service providers anticipate that with technological advancements, prosumers will not only be able to sell their excess PV but also be able to automate their battery backup systems to respond to utility signals by discharging energy back to the grid during peak load.
Overall, technological adoption will be key to ensure a successful RE transition. The idea of smart grid and smart meters controlling the devices has been mooted for long but with an increasing RE capacity addition, the technology will be indispensable. The penetration of intelligent appliances in households will leverage the smart grid technology in delivering value thereby providing the prosumers’ (who will be a significant majority) with a tool to know more about their electricity use, reduce demand, cost and carbon emissions.
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