Five ways to reinvent energy

Solar farm at sunriseOn 25 November the Grantham Institute’s Moritz Köhme and Dr Jeff Hardy attended the Reinventing Energy Summit hosted by New Scientist and RE•WORK. Jeff is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute and was one of the presenters at the event, speaking about ‘Sustainable energy transformations: Where are we at and where are we going?’. In this blog, Jeff and Moritz share five interesting messages they took away from the day, including their favourite new concept; energy match-making.

1. Renewables are unstoppable

According to Chris Goodall, author of ‘The Switch’, it’s is only a matter of time before solar photovoltaic (PV) panels dominate electricity generation globally, especially due to major breakthroughs in perovskite and organic PV cells. In his book he boldly predicts that, by 2030, PV will be competitive with natural gas in generating electricity and competitive with oil in powering cars. His key assumption is that the global production of solar energy will continue increasing by 30% annually and solar panel costs will decrease by 20% with every doubling of accumulated capacity. This is in line with trends going back 50 years. He cited a recent claim by car manufacturer Volkswagen that they will produce an electric vehicle at comparable costs to a conventional car by 2020.

In his talk, opening the Reinventing Energy Summit, Chris stated that whilst the United States’ president elect might present a setback for renewables, the cost trends mean that PV will simply be the economical choice. Today, an enormous 77% more people in the United States work for the solar industry than in the coal mining sector.

On a global scale the main growth will take place in countries such as India, and Africa, where people have not have had access to electricity before. Phil Sandwell, a PhD student at the Grantham Institute, predicts that, in areas such as these, off-grid hybrid systems predominantly powered by solar PV will be cost-effective by the year 2018.

Imperial spinoff BBOX, who were also present at the summit, already offer ‘plug and play’ solar systems in Africa, and aim to provide electricity to 20 million people by 2020.

Of course, the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Whilst battery storage technologies can balance the intermittency of renewable energy carriers in short term, economically viable long-term energy storage remains an obstacle, especially in countries as the UK with short, dark days in the winter months. Chris was not convinced by the relatively new idea of producing hydrogen as an energy storage option to make up shortfalls, when renewables do not generate enough electricity. Instead he advocated storing energy in the form of methane by synthesising more stable carbon-based molecules from hydrogen and carbon dioxide or monoxide – such as via microbial processes.

2. ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’

New Scientist’s Features Editor, Sally Adee, in her introductory remarks, noted that national and global energy models have consistently been wrong on renewables deployment, with one exception – Greenpeace’s ‘The Energy [R]evolution’. This scenario is based on 100% renewable energy by 2050, and is widely considered ‘an outlier’, despite being closest to the actual global deployment of renewables.

Jeff hardy delivering his talk
Jeff Hardy speaking at the Reinventing Energy summit

Jeff’s presentation reinforced this message, reflecting that many low-carbon energy scenarios suggested a narrow range of similar, rather centralised, energy systems for the UK. In his time at energy regulator Ofgem, he said that as such they weren’t terribly useful for understanding the full scope of future regulatory implications. These models also turned out to be wrong. Reality has consistently fallen outside of the scenarios – energy demand (overestimated) and solar PV deployment (underestimated) are examples of this. A new generation of scenarios might well be needed so we can explore a more extreme range of futures, that stand a chance of including our reality.  

3. Embrace uncertainty to create smart cities

One of the reasons that scenarios are ‘wrong’ is that we’re all rather uncertain about where our energy system transition is taking us. For some uncertainty is daunting, but not for Simon Roberts, Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), who suggests we’ll get nowhere unless we embrace uncertainty. CSE are leading a project, the Bristol Smart Energy City Collaboration, which aims to create a roadmap for how the city of Bristol can become a ‘smart energy’ city over the next five years.

Simon sees three opportunities in being smart with energy. Firstly, being it can reduce waste and curb peak energy demand. Secondly, being smart can enhance the value of renewable energy by maximising their use when they available (eg. when the sun is shining or the wind blowing) by encouraging people to turn things on, or storing the excess energy for later use. Finally, it can create smart ways to tackle fuel poverty and improve the lives of those in vulnerable situations, such as alerting the relevant authorities when someone’s home is too cold in winter.

Rather than being paralysed by uncertainty, he is convinced that the right thing to do is to take a few preliminary steps that are agnostic as to where the journey ends up. He also believes that an ‘unstructured’ project is the right way to start – the moment you introduce structure, the whole thing slows down. We liked this as a concept.

4. Artificial Intelligence could be our saviour, but is a mixed blessing

Artificial Intelligence, or its modern moniker ‘machine learning’, seems to be the cure to any problem nowadays, so it is unsurprising that designers are already using it to increase the energy-efficiency of power consuming devices. After all, the cheapest unit of electricity is still the one you do not consume.

Mustafa Suleyman, Co-Founder of DeepMind, showed us that they could achieve staggering 40% cooling savings, which corresponds to 15% overall energy savings, at a Google data centre, using machine learning to optimise the system operation. The fact that 3% of the global electricity consumption is by data centres reveals the huge untapped potential.

However, Benjamin Kott, whose company Energydeck already offers big data based solutions for increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, made the point, that in many cases the full potential cannot be exploited due to the lack of available data. Most older buildings simply don’t have a sufficient number of sensors to collect the necessary data.

Another issue that arose was whether machine learning can be ‘trusted’ to run systems, since they work within a black box. This could be particularly troubling when it comes to complex systems, like most energy systems, and where failure could be catastrophic.

While some see opportunities, another speaker Andrew Haslett showed us the rather disturbing possibility of being able to identify certain electronic devices such as a kettle from its power consumption profile, raising serious questions about our data security and privacy. There are now over 3.6 million smart meters operating in Great Britain, collecting data around the clock.

5. Our favourite concept of the day – energy match-making

Thorsten delivering a talk
Thorsten Klaus introduces Aktivhaus’ energy efficient homes.

And finally, our favourite concept of the day came from Thorsten Klaus, who spoke about the Aktivhaus, which designs and builds very energy efficient houses that produce more energy than they consume over the year, thanks to roof-mounted solar panels. In many cases, it is either not economically viable, or even undesirable, to retrofit old or historic buildings. In his talk, Thorsten spoke about match-making his Aktivhaus buildings with old buildings that are difficult to make more energy efficient, in effect gifting them your home’s excess electricity. A sort of dating agency for old and new homes.
Jeff Hardy is a Grantham Research Fellow, currently on secondment from Ofgem. Interested in following in his footsteps? The Grantham Institute funds up to two Grantham Research Fellow posts each year, focussing on the Institute’s key research and engagement priority areas. The deadline for applications is 21 December. Find out more

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