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.
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?
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.