Impressions of Sustainability Live

As I contemplated the scale of the event, I recalled that moment in ‘Jaws’ where Roy Scheider comments, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” I found myself in a similar situation: Sustainability Live 2015 is huge. That it’s co-located with UtilityWeek Live in an adjacent hall only increases the load upon our synapses.

The two events’ workshops and seminars are grouped into about half a dozen thematic areas, covering subjects such as water, energy recovery, energy efficiency and so on. This helped a bit, because it meant I had a fighting chance of being in the right place at the right time… but of course I could only be in one place, so at least five sixths of the seminars went unheeded. Also, I was only there for day one of the three, so things were bound to be missed. We should have sent a small army of researchers. Anyway, here’s the first of my reports arising from the event…

On the decarbonisation of energy

In the ‘Energy Theatre’ this afternoon John Scott, Director at Chiltern Power, chaired an interesting session entitled ‘Whole system approach to decarbonisation of energy’.

I think of moves towards ‘green’ energy as a good thing… but that’s because I’m not the person who has to deal with the consequences. As a result of the session, I now understand something about how clean energy poses challenges for the grid because of intermittent supply, and reverse flows. You put solar panels on the roof of your building, and you start feeding energy into the grid… at least, until it gets cloudy. Or until you start running a piece of equipment that demands a large amount of energy. All of a sudden you’re not a supplier, but a customer… and the grid doesn’t get any advance warning. Intermittent supply and reverse flows are not good.

UK energy flow chart for 2007

In the session I learned something new: this is an Energy Flow Chart, detailing the inputs and outputs of the UK energy sector. Of particular interest to me are the losses. Click to have a closer look.

Imagine that electric vehicles take off in a big way, and hundreds of people in a district have them plugged in. Being ‘smart’, the cars know not to recharge themselves when the variable price of electricity is highest, so they wait until a period of lower demand and then commence their recharge. That’s a good thing, surely? A way to achieve load balancing? Well… no. It would be just like those software agents that play the stock market, with no human intervention. When the price of the commodity falls, all the electric vehicles would pounce at once, resulting in a surge in demand that no source of supply can meet. According to the panel, if an estimated 5% of our vehicles were electric and were programmed to act in this way, the disruption would be enough to crash the national grid.

That’s not a crash of the kind that Microsoft puts me through with depressing regularity: it’s a wide-area outage that would take two or three days to recover from – and we’re moving into a period of increased risk of a “crash and reboot”, says Dr Simon Harrison, group strategic development manager at Mott MacDonald. Part of the problem here is the disconnect between the timescale on which the energy system evolves, and the timescale for the products it serves. Simon Harrison’s unit of measure was the parliament; cars last up to three parliaments, aircraft last five and trains six.

One suggested goal was to have de-carbonised UK electricity by 2030 (three parliaments…) but we have no idea what devices the grid of 2030 will be powering. Present-day laptops and mobile ’phones only last half a parliament or so, meaning that there will be a lot of iterations between now and then. But how “smart” will they be, and can they be persuaded to operate with the needs of the grid in mind?

New pylon design

A recent design competition yielded this new design for electricity transmission pylons. In future, the grid will be a much more intricate entity, supporting a diverse mix of sources of generation  [picture: Peter Trimming]

Who decides on the formats by which these devices communicate, and the technologies that are most appropriate? We’re seeing disruptive changes to the established system of regulation, John Scott warns, and we can’t simply leave it to the market to find solutions. Market-led developments add to the problems because you get bespoke solutions, not inter-operable ones.

Undoubtedly, technological developments will improve performance and reduce costs… but the downside of this is ever-increasing complexity: future energy systems are going to be much more vulnerable to fluctuations in demand and supply, and you know what they say about great power and great responsibility.

Personally, I think they’re going to need a bigger boat.


2 thoughts on “Impressions of Sustainability Live

  1. I agree that running a national power grid when you have no (limited) control over a large portion of the supply & demand is a big challenge that many people are unaware of. And no-one likes to publish data on the amount of energy that is generated (& that households may be paid for with overly generous feed-in tariffs) that then goes to waste when supply exceeds demand and coal fired power cannot be scaled back to compensate. Most cogeneration projects here struggle to provide value for money as networks will not approve systems that supply more that half of a site’s energy demand. many have been installed but never run as they are not cost effective or there are regulatory controls that stop them supplying neighbours or tenants.
    However, just as small scale generation & cogen can create problems, they can also help to alleviate them in ‘smart grid’ applications (e.g. when car/school bus batteries & cogen etc are used to smooth the overall load). This is possibly just trying to make the best of a bad situation though – as I can’t imagine that you would design a system like this from scratch.
    Large scale renewables provide greater scope for control than decentralised small scale generation but the large number of subsidised small systems has killed the renewables price so projects are less attractive than they might otherwise have been. (Did this happen other places as well or only in Australia?).
    Good storage options may help but unfortunately I hear too many people saying that they want to install storage so they can operate independently of the grid.
    Many people have also underestimated the risks associated with turning homes into electricity plants and wrongly assume that they can provide backup in the event of a power failure.

    • Thanks Pip. I think we’ll have to blog on the subject of Tesla’s newly-announced innovation sometime soon: a household battery based on the same technology as their cars. (For once, an investment that does offer a backup, it seems.)

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