TTM 2014: Future of Energy

The future requires an integration of Information Technologies -IT, with Operation Technologies -OT.

Energy is a very broad area and the track focused mostly on electricity and its production through fossil fuels and renewable. There was no discussion on energy for transportation that by large today is tied up to fossil fuel (oil and its derivative) and just a passing reference to atomic energy that is still under the spell of Fukushima. It was anyhow observed that there is no way to erase nuclear energy from the slate if we are serious about reducing the carbon footprint. Public opinion is strongly against nuclear power in several regions of the world, US included, whilst in others it is accepted, like France and China.
The future of energy will be shaped by technology, standards and policy. The main trends for the coming two decades are:

  • Transitioning from devices/systems to holistic solutions
  • Natural gas boom: changing electric generation economics
  • Grid flexibility plus self healing plus reconfigurable
  • Electrical power distribution resiliency
  • Big data, the Cloud and use of Social Media
  • Convergence of IT (Information Technologies) and OT (Operation Technologies) to support enterprise data management

Interestingly, the technology plane can now be linked to the social plane to the point that using social media can help in restoration of power by having people using power in a smarter way.

The gas relative abundance is changing the overall scenario, both in contribution to CO2 decrease (fifty % of the reduction in the US can be attributed to the shift from coal to gas) and in the flexibility in power generation that it offers, flexibility that allows the smooth integration of renewable in the grid.

The evolution passes through the optimization of conventional generation dispatch, the compensation for variability of demand including networking storage systems and the integration of renewable.
From a technology point of view we are seeing the edge of the grid transforming into microgrids with controllers at the edge and in each microgrid. Controlling is now starting to happen in a continuous way. This is stressing the mechanical controllers that were originally planned to operate for 30 years whilst now have a lifetime close to 5 years. Whereas in the past they were activated a few times per day, if any, now they are activated over hundred times per day. There is a need to find different ways to isolate microgrids that can avoid mechanical controllers using smart inverters.

The Internet of Thing is a crucial component of the future of energy. Intelligent machines, data analytics and people at work are all connected through IoT.

In the energy area a minimal saving translates into huge numbers. For the US a saving of 1% means saving 300B$ over 15 years.

Standardization is crucial to make solutions available throughout the world. So far solutions have been a local turf interest. As our power networks are making more and more use of software and need to interact with a variety of devices at the edges (through IoT) global standards are becoming very important.

In the next twenty years a stronger coupling will exist between electricity, gas and the information infrastructure. Because of the strong coupling in some parts of the US between gas and electricity when gas price goes up (a cold winter) the cost of electricity goes up as well hitting consumers twice as much.

Massive amount of data are and will be available. Potentially this will enable a much better control of the infrastructure and of power distribution and balance. Specifically it should help answering question like: how can we couple or decouple one network from another? How can we better interface with the consumers?

Solar panel technology continues to progress and the goal is to drive the cost down to 5c per KW (with no subsidy), thus matching the cost of electricity produced from gas; this should be achieved by 2020.

The cost of energy storage is also going down, having halved in 12 years from 2000 to 2012 for lithium battery.

LED cost is also going down and by decade end it will match the cost of best light sources with the advantage that it is easier to control the load.

New chips can now provide more efficient control systems. Already today an inverter can have the size of an iPad.

A big challenge in the next decades is given by the aging infrastructure. Transformers in the distribution network were designed for a 40 year operation life. In the US the average age of transformer is already 42 years!

The challenge facing the power companies is how to upgrade the infrastructure in a way that limits capital exposure and cost and at the same time prepares for the future. In particular it should accommodate a rethinking of an architecture that goes back two centuries (centralized generation, high voltage, medium voltage, low voltage distribution) and that has to evolve to accommodate distributed production and smart rebalancing considering that in the next decades it is expected to see a reduction of cost of renewables and storage.

The upgrade of the infrastructure should take into account:

  • Cyberphysical threats (both soft and hard)
  • Climate threats- protecting the infrastructure from extreme weather

Overall we should consider that:

  • 3 billion people have either no, or very limited, access to electricity
  • by 2050, 2 billion people will be added in those same regions that have little access to electricity since massive level of urbanization will occur mostly in the developing countries.

The challenge for the new technologies is to help in copying with this.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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