Three visions for the future of energy from smart grid pioneers

Sensemaking / Three visions for the future of energy from smart grid pioneers

We talk to three Ashden Award winners developing the next generation of energy production and consumption.

By Ann Noon / 21 Jun 2017
Andrew Aitchison/Ashden

Over the past decade or more there has been a rapid growth in capacity of solar and wind energy globally. Patterns of electricity consumption will also significantly change as heating and transport start to be electrified. 

As the world strives to bring carbon emissions down from peak levels, smart energy companies are helping industry to cut emissions in a way which creates efficiencies, enhances energy productivity and creates revenue and valuable cost savings for their customers.

We talked to three Ashden Award winners working in this area: Smarter Grid Solutions which is helping make the UK electricity grid smarter, the Indian big data analytics start-up Ecolibrium Energy,and 2016 winner Open Energi, which offers a frequency response service.

First we hear from Graham Ault, Development Director at Smarter Grid Solutions

What is Smarter Grid Solutions' long-term vision for the future of energy?

The significant trends that Smarter Grid Solutions (SGS) are a part of and expects to revolutionise the future are ‘D, D and D’: decentralisation and digitalisation of energy, which together can help to deliver the third ‘D’ of decarbonisation. These three ‘D’ trends are crucially important: they are continually growing in pace and will result in a radically different energy system that addresses both customer and the global need. Our vision for the role of SGS in this ’three D’ energy revolution is to be the provider of the platforms and tools to enable anybody to manage any distributed energy device in any location.

How does SGS fulfil this role?

We provide IT solutions for managing and optimising energy assets across the power grid. With growth in renewables, energy storage and customer energy management and with an increasing decentralisation of energy to smaller devices closer to consumers, there is a growing need to monitor and manage the production and consumption of electricity from greater numbers of small devices closer to the ‘edges’ of the grid. SGS technology is specifically focused on enabling this change to the energy system. Our long-term goal is the continual development of these products and services to address the fast changing and multi-faceted requirements of customers and keeping abreast of the market trends to anticipate and deliver distributed energy management capabilities.

What changes are SGS driving, and in particular when it comes to new technologies?

Our products allow power network operators and owners of the energy assets themselves to navigate these changes in the energy system with the tools to control and optimise the new energy technologies integrated into the grid. Our IT-based solutions have been described as the ‘connective tissue’ between all the individual energy assets and intelligent devices and the grid system, enabling them all to operate securely and efficiently. SGS is one of a growing number of new technology companies creating completely new ways for the power grid to be built and operated in more customer-focused, sustainable, flexible and efficient ways.

The technologies we have already embedded in our products include advanced ICT, data management, machine-to-machine operations, cyber secure communications, real-time software method and sophisticated control engineering methods. We continue to research, develop and innovate new technologies into our products including distributed data architectures, advanced maths techniques including optimisation and new communications and field device technologies.

What challenges lie ahead in order to achieve this ‘3D’ vision for a smart energy system?

The pace and complexity of the growing decentralised energy marketplace creates a real challenge for smaller companies like Smarter Grid Solutions. We are striving to create the right balance across delivering for current customers, addressing the needs of future customers, staying attuned to significant market trends and tipping points, empowering all staff to innovate and deliver value to our customers, tackling competitive threats, operating across multiple markets and geographies, and creating a solid business foundation for our operations.

The conventional power sector can be difficult to navigate, especially when our technology is disruptive to traditional organisations and methods. We find it continuously challenging to keep in touch with the traditional infrastructure and organisations we are integrating into today and at the same time meet the needs of the fast-moving, seemingly frictionless, commercially and innovation driven new operators in the energy sector.

Our IT-based solutions have been described as the ‘connective tissue’ between all the individual energy assets and intelligent devices and the grid system, enabling them all to operate securely and efficiently.

Who needs to be part of making the vision a reality, and why?

There seems to be exciting and increasingly diverse participants in the new energy future and we are sure that the influx of new entrants will continue at pace. The authorities over energy systems and markets do have crucial roles to play in creating the structures to encourage and incentive innovative solutions to participate and deliver value to current and future energy users. At the same time, the authorities over the traditional energy infrastructure companies need to find ways to incentivise them to play a full role in the energy transition.

Next we meet with Harit Soni, co-founder of Ecolibrium Energy, winner of the 2017 Ashden Award for Powering Business.

What is Ecolibrium’s long-term vision for the future of energy?

The future of energy would be not only clean and green, but also smart. We want to create energy intelligence to help businesses optimise their energy and resource consumption using machine learning, and create a world where demand side management is the norm, rather than an exception.

How would you describe Ecolibrium’s role in the energy sector?

Ecolibrium is playing a key role in implementing demand side management in the energy sector. While there is a lot of focus on projects to generate renewable energy, there is an urgent need to focus on also optimising existing ​consumption across the world. 

How is Ecolibrium drivingchange through new technologies?

We are changing the way industries and buildings optimise their energy consumption. We use the internet of technology, data analytics and machine learning algorithms to perform predictive maintenance on their large equipment and thus optimise their energy consumption by up to 15%.

Our platform SmartSense is implemented in more than 500 businesses in India, and changing the way they perform energy management.  This is the start of the vision of creating Industry 4.0 - the 'Smart' Factory or Building.

What challenges lie ahead in order to achieve your vision of a smart energy future?

The top two that we face are:

  • Finding international strategic partners that can help replicate this technology globally
  • The need for supportive policies which incentivise smarter energy management and analytics in the developing and developed world. 

Who needs to be part of making the vision a reality, and why?

The vision will only be a reality when business and governments come together to provide a supportive ecosystem where energy efficiency and optimisation is as strategic as new generation, and there is wide adoption of energy analytics and related technology to make this possible. 

Key industry titans need to lead the way by adopting this, and create success stories which all other businesses can follow. This will truly create a world where every watt counts.

The vision will only be a reality when business and governments come together to provide a supportive ecosystem where energy efficiency and optimisation is as strategic as new generation, and there is wide adoption of energy analytics and related technology to make this possible.  

Finally, we hear from Open Energi’s Commercial Director, David Hill:

What is Open Energi’s long-term vision for the future of energy?

Our vision is an energy system which provides clean, affordable energy for all. This means creating a zero-marginal cost system, where renewable generation provides energy which is free at the point of use, and data and technology enable the system to be autonomous and self-balancing. The need to understand the barriers to this transformation and create innovative technology solutions and new collaborative business models to overcome them, helping to realise this vision, drives what we do on a daily basis.

How would you describe the specific roles Open Energi plays in the energy sector?

Open Energi is a technology pioneer and innovator helping to radically reduce the cost of delivering and consuming energy. Our focus is demand flexibility: we believe passionately that this offers the smartest, cheapest and cleanest way to enable a sustainable energy future. Along the way, it can help democratise energy, shifting value from large industry incumbents to energy consumers, and rewarding them for their participation.

What changes are Open Energi driving, and in particular when it comes to new technologies?

Open Energi is applying artificial intelligence (AI) and data-driven insights to unlock demand flexibility at scale. Our next generation technology platform connects, aggregates and optimises distributed energy assets in real-time – from industrial processes and battery storage through to local generation.

Using AI, we can create an efficient and adaptive framework that can look across multiple sites, assets and markets, and intelligently optimise their behaviour so that they consume energy in the smartest way to help businesses save energy, cut costs and earn revenue.

But despite President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the world has never felt more unified behind the need for action, and as technology costs continue to fall, momentum is gathering pace.

What challenges lie ahead in order to achieve this vision?

To realise the potential of demand flexibility we need markets and regulation that are fit for purpose in a modern age of energy technology innovation. This starts with a level playing field which doesn’t favour one type of technology or generation over another.

Data access is another obstacle to progress. If more anonymised half-hourly power data was available it would enable companies working on smart grid technologies to validate ideas quickly and cheaply.

Similarly, it would be a major breakthrough if energy companies made available APIs for reporting and accessing flexibility. It would allow companies like Open Energi to put demand flexibility to good use balancing the grid and optimising the market positions of those same energy companies.  

Who needs to be part of making the vision a reality, and why?

Systemic change is incredibly hard and slow moving. Even more so in the context of the global energy industry, which is built around some of the largest pieces of infrastructure humans have ever built, financed over decades. But despite President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the world has never felt more unified behind the need for action, and as technology costs continue to fall, momentum is gathering pace. Businesses are leading the way, making long-term, sustainable decisions and reaching into the daily lives of millions of consumers to make it easier for each and every one of us to make sustainable choices.

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Image: The National Grid control room at their head quarters in Wokingham.

Ashden is a Futures Centre partner.

 

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