More than forty years ago, the publication of ‘Limits to Growth’ warned us about the problems of exponential population growth. Since then, the world population has almost doubled and it is still increasing by an amount of more than 200,000 people per day. Together with an increasing average welfare level, this indeed puts very high demands on our planet’s resources. Luckily, thanks to technology and innovation, people still prosper and economic growth is evermore possible.
To share the most recent developments and best practices in the field of sustainability, Accenture is organizing “Sustainability24” (May 15th): a global virtual roundtable discussions series with the overreaching theme: ‘Sustainable Innovation – Scaling for Transformational Impact’. Sustainable energy is part of the discussion at 13.30 CET. You can register here.
Today it is our task to use the same ingenuity and creativity to disprove the current doomsday scenarios of global warming and peak oil. The principal challenge currently is to make a transition away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy, whilst coping with an ever increasing demand. Non-polluting renewable energy sources like wind, solar, wave and tidal energy will undoubtedly enable us to innovate ourselves out of the pending energy crisis. However, these power sources bring about a new huge and novel challenge: intermittency. Although every single one of the aforementioned renewable sources is able to provide in all of the world’s energy needs on its own, this abundance is only valid on somewhat larger timespans. On shorter timescales, the availability of renewable energy is exactly as inconsistent as the weather. Unfortunately, the energy market currently is purely demand driven and immeasurably dynamic. Demands for electrical power can and do change by gigantic amounts, in split seconds.
Real time power distribution
To ensure the stability of the electrical grid, demand and supply have to be balanced in real time, at all times. For every 60 Watt light bulb that is switched on somewhere, a generator has to react instantaneously by providing the exact same amount of power. Gas fired power plants can do this, weather dependent sources can’t. As the market share of renewables is growing, the energy distribution system has to adapt accordingly. Currently, we are accustomed to plug in appliances and pay a fixed amount per unit of energy consumed, regardless of its availability at that moment. This is unlike all other markets, where prices are an outcome of the combined demand and supply.
Power to the energy bill
Changing this system will be a demanding but nevertheless essential part of the overall energy transition. One might even say intelligent load balancing and affordable energy storage are the missing links towards a truly sustainable energy future. Storing energy is relatively easy but expensive, both regarding the costs of ‘hardware’ (batteries, hydrogen plants, etc.) as in terms of energy conversion losses. Adapting our demand for energy to its real time availability is the cheaper, smarter route, as it will mostly require new ‘software’ : flexible energy tariffs and equipment that can make its own choices with respect to those varying tariffs.
Smarts Grids; Win, Win & Win
There are many processes that are perfectly able to adapt to the real time supply of renewable energy. Electrical cooling and heating or the charging of electrical car batteries for example, only have to guarantee operation within certain clearly defined boundaries (maximum temperature in the fridge, fully charged battery in the morning). By integrating smart algorithms into these kind of appliances, they themselves can work out the most economical way to stay within the set margins. Other activities, like laundry, clothes drying and other ‘intermittent power consumers’ can be planned in a similar manner, although this will also require some human cooperation. In that sense, you could even decide to schedule your own energy intensive leisure (sauna, solarium) depending on the availability of green energy. Good for the planet, beneficial for your own savings and great for the grid operators!
Energie-Wende: “a blueprint for Sustainable Growth?”
Germany is one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to the implementation of renewable energy and smart grids. At May 15th at 13.30, experts from RWE, Siemens, the Wuppertal Institute and Accenture will give their vision on these developments, the benefits and the anticipated challenges. Please take part in this interactive debate and register here to join.
Joost Brinkman: Lead Sustainability Services the Netherlands
Thijs ten Brinck: Intern Accenture Sustainability Services