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On End Usage and the Democratization of Energy

Economically viable power supply

Of course, not every consumer will go into the energy business: As already described in one of my previous posts, a flexible energy system will be based on smart grids that act in the background while coordinating supply and demand. Today, state-of-the-art information technology already makes it possible to coordinate the demand for grid-based services and reduce the supply to uncritical consumers (Demand Side Management).

It is correct that our “hunger” for energy is constantly growing, but is the construction of more nuclear power plants really the right solution? Based on the following “benefits”, we are tempted to answer “Yes” to this question: Nuclear power plants do not produce carbon dioxide (CO2) and are not reliant on fossil fuels that are limited in their supply. Although no carbon dioxide is produced during nuclear fission itself, nuclear power plants, from a holistic point of view, are not completely free of emissions: Greenhouse gases are produced during construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power plants as well as during the extraction and enrichment of uranium. Also our uranium supplies (the “fuel” required for the operation of nuclear reactors) will not last forever, and this is not even taking into account the risks radioactive fission products pose to the environment and to health or the still unresolved storage problem.

I think we should take these facts as a chance to reconsider our power generation methods and develop them further by implementing innovative technologies. If we are to become less dependent on those few suppliers of fossil fuels and prevent an ever increasing production of greenhouse gases all over the world, the integration of renewable energy (RE) will become indispensable.

Solar and wind power, and - depending on the region - also geothermal or hydropower are virtually inexhaustible sources of energy. Studies and pilot projects (by TU Berlin or by Fraunhofer IWES in cooperation with our company) have shown that it is possible to intelligently connect and efficiently control power plants from the different fields of renewable energy (water, wind, solar, biogas), and ultimately integrate them into the power supply grid. In the fall of 2013, researchers from Siemens, Fraunhofer IWES and other project partners were able to prove by means of a field test that virtual power plants of this kind can cover the electricity demand of a large region at exactly the right times, see also http://www.siemens.com/innovation/en/news/2013/e_inno_1332_1.htm and http://www.kombikraftwerk.de/start.html.

Often, reference is made to the high costs involved in the use of RE. If the initial high costs had always been the decisive criterion in the development of innovative technology, electric generators, for example, would never have been invented (just remember the pioneering work of our company founder Werner von Siemens on the principle of electrodynamics in this respect). Furthermore, power engineering - the fundamental requirement for the age of electricity - would not have been developed. Not to mention the improvement to the quality of life electrification has brought about. We would still be using steam engines nowadays instead of electric motors. We would still be washing our laundry by hand, would not be able to use hard disks or CD players, would not travel by subway, car, ship or plane or use air conditioning, elevators, escalators, locomotives or modern machinery. To cut a long story short: without electric motors, the world would be at a standstill.

Also with regard to profitability and competitiveness, RE is making good headway.

It is a fact that the electricity generated by means of wind and solar power today is already more economical than nuclear-based electricity. The reason for this is that the development of the associated technology has not only just started now, but several decades ago: While efficiency has increased, the costs are decreasing. According to a study by “Agora Energiewende”, RE plants can now produce electricity at half the price compared to modern nuclear power plants.

Another point that can be put forward here is that renewables cannot meet baseload requirements, as their production depends on weather conditions. In the above-mentioned Agora study, the experts entertain the idea of a possible power supply system which, apart from wind turbines and photovoltaic systems, also has integrated gas-fired power plants as a backup for periods during which the wind does not blow or the sun fails to shine. This study has revealed that the costs for this environmentally friendly and almost CO2-free combined system are one fifth lower than for those based on nuclear electricity.

July 25, 2014    View Comment    

On Smart Grids are About to Get a Whole Lot Smarter

Smart Grids Monitor and Control the Power Supply System

The discussion about alternative energy sources often deflects the focus away from the "main issue": Smart grids are not about generating 100% of our electricity from renewable energy sources; this is initially of a lower priority. The main focus here lies on structural changes; to be more precise, on a flexible power supply system. And this is not possible without restructuring the current system.

If power generation and storage, supply and demand and grid management are merged, all the players in these fields could be integrated into the power market. This is why we need an "intelligent" infrastructure that handles load management, evaluates the given volume of data and manages and monitors grid conditions and ultimately controls these conditions.

Intermediate storage facilities such as pumped-storage plants or hydrogen storage systems will also pay a significant role in these intelligent configurations. I have already stated my position on this at this year's Hanover trade fair - for more, follow this link http://theenergycollective.com/michaelweinhold/409366/energy-storage-opportunities-are-everywhere. I will discuss the topic of hydrogen storage later in more detail in a separate article.

The implications for the above considerations will be far-reaching: 1. A centralized energy system will become a distributed energy system - and this will apply equally to large power plants, to combined heat and power plants and even to small rooftop solar systems. 2. A system that has, up to now, been passive will be given an active role in the future, thanks to high-performance information and communications technology (ICT). ICT will enable networking and interaction between and among the active players, which has not been possible to date. And this leads to 3. Smart Grids permit the flow of electricity in both directions: from the central power plants to local electricity sources and back to the grid; and they also allow us to integrate renewable energy sources into this system. 4. Small power providers can merge to form larger units or virtual alliances and stabilize the grid. 5. Intelligent electricity meters will enable consumers to not only "tap" electricity at reasonable rates or feed their surplus energy into the grid (at the best price), but will also allow them to act as buffers for surplus electricity, for example using batteries from their electric cars. 6. Savings incentives and automated energy management are important tools in this process for avoiding load peaks and monitoring and regulating power needs.

Summary: As the VDE (Verband der Elektrotechnik, Elektronik und Informationstechnik (German Electro-technology Association)) so aptly put it, smart grids are in actuality energy information networks which can be intelligently controlled. They coordinate supply and demand, continuously optimize the flow and storage of electricity and ensure that the grid infrastructure is optimally utilized. Smart Grids will not spring up all at once; we will have to develop partial solutions (software, hardware, telecommunications interfaces, Internet technologies, automation technology, etc.) as we move forward. Although this will cost us time and money, it will, at the same time, also open up completely new opportunities.

 

June 27, 2014    View Comment    

On Conventional and Renewable Energy Will Dance Even More Closely Together

Dear Mr. Miller,

In my recent article, I wrote the following: “Grids are the glue that hold it all together. They are a highly efficient means of transportation, and efficiency in transmission is obviously critical in terms of cost and practical delivery.” The issue is therefore not that Germany is unable to stabilize its power grids without its European neighbors. The opposite is also true. We are embedded in a continental European network, and I see this as a great strength. By working together, the European countries can better balance fluctuations in consumption and generation and maintain a stable grid frequency.

It is indeed true that we are currently unable to transport the electricity from renewable sources produced in northern Germany to the southern regions, since we lack the necessary high-voltage lines. However, this is just a temporary issue. If we look to the future, we can see that Germany is working on solving this problem. The federal government’s grid development plan provides for connecting future offshore wind farms to the grid by 2032 and for building the necessary north-south links, among other things.

Admittedly, our ability to cover seasonal fluctuations in wind and solar power will still be limited, even with the expansion of power lines. I agree that if renewable energy is to play a central role in Germany’s power supply, this can be done only with corresponding storage technologies. Energy providers already use pumped storage systems as a backup. Their efficiency (around 80 percent) is extremely high, yet the capacity is still not enough for temporary storage of large quantities of energy. In addition, very few suitable sites exist in Germany.

At Siemens, we believe that so-called power-to-gas systems will play a crucial role. These systems first use a chemical process (electrolysis) to break down water into its constituents: hydrogen and oxygen. Excess sustainable electricity supplies the energy needed to do this. With the so-called PEM (Proton Exchange Membrane) technology, we already have an efficient electrolyzer, which can specifically use the fluctuating supply of renewable energy. You can find more information here.

My colleague, Gaelle Hotellier, head of Hydrogen Solutions at Siemens, has already indicated that hydrogen will provide the bridge to other forms of energy. Please also see this blog-post.

I quite agree with her. The ability to convert hydrogen into methane gas in another step by adding CO2 will be crucial to the future of energy supply. This methanized gas can drive turbines in combined-cycle power plants directly and thus be recycled at an efficiency of more than 60 percent.

Doing this enables us to supply energy flexibly and on demand. Appropriate gas-fired power plants could act as a backup in the future, and can be started up very quickly on cloudy or calm days. This methane generated on the basis of renewable energy can also be fed into the public gas grid. Experts point out that Germany’s natural gas grid can easily cover the storage demand for excess renewable energy.

To integrate renewables in a meaningful way, we also need to work on adapting the structure and organization of power generation and distribution systems. It is not a question of technologies – they already exist today.

June 10, 2014    View Comment    

On Conventional and Renewable Energy Will Dance Even More Closely Together

Dear Mr Miller,

The so-called conventional technologies are of course not without innovations. Due to the increased complexity of the higher intake of fluctuating power from renewable energies it is even more important that we further develop these conventional technologies to higher flexibility. Specifically gas-fired power stations have already shown that they are ideal partner for renewables. Within Siemens we have developed e.g. the fact cycling technology called FACY which enables the operator of a combined cycle power plant to start up more than 100MW in less than 10min.

Best 

Michael Weinhold

May 23, 2014    View Comment    

On The Rapidly Accelerating Future of Energy

Dear Donough,

Thanks for your comment and your opinion.
I see your point – but maybe I may mention that this article is only the first of a series of five focusing on the vision 2050.
If you have a specific question or own ideas for the future of energy, I`d be happy to discuss them on a more detailed level.

Looking forward to your ideas.

Best
Michael

May 6, 2014    View Comment