There’s no doubt that the recent focus on energy storage has got a lot of people in the renewables industry excited. Storage for technologies like solar and wind has always been something of a Holy Grail. If we can crack it, not only will it make these technologies more viable, it could actually change our whole power infrastructure.
There are two factors that each home or office depends on: The power used to put on the lights and appliances and the heat needed to keep us warm. Many businesses are now starting to offer heating and electricity combinations with solar PV and air source heat pump installations but the wider issue of how we distribute power in the future is increasingly becoming important and a high priority for many governments.
Could your neighbour charge up your car from his solar panels in the future? Will there be local community projects that provide all the energy and power infrastructure you need?
Car company Mitsubishi have put it most succinctly in recent times:
“Around the world, there are already a number of projects aimed at creating Smart Communities where energy is generated mainly from renewable sources and then consumed locally. Such developments make efficient use of solar and wind power, with residents using electric vehicles (EVs) to get around the local area.”
Heading Towards Smart Communities
If we want to look at what the future may well look like, we probably need to head over to Japan where a number of test projects are underway. Imagine a community that is entirely supported by wind and solar. There’s an inherent problem, as well all know, that energy production is intermittent but with new battery storage technology we should be able to ensure that power is delivered at peak times. With the digital smart solutions that are now available we will also have the chance to monitor usage throughout the day and make better decisions about how and when appropriate heating and power can be distributed.
Of course, there’s also the potential to make each home self-sufficient. Again, with viable storage, you’ll be able to create your own heat and electricity to suit your own needs and not worry about being connected to a grid in the future. The problem with this is understanding what happens if your own system breaks down. You may be left waiting for days, even weeks, to get the power back on. For this reason, localised solutions are looking more closely at how we can work together in communities to deliver sustainable energy solutions.
The Masdar Connection
Is it possible to run a whole city on renewable energy?
For that, we can take a look at Masdar in the Abu Dhabi. The project began in 2006 and a million square metres have been built since. The plan is to complete the city by 2025 where it will be home to some 40,000 people living in an environment that is powered entirely by renewable energy. Concentrated solar panels provide heat and warmth for the city’s water system as well as drive cooling systems and traditional panels produce electricity, one plant covering 22 hectares generating 17,000 MWh a year. It’s a massive experiment that could well change the world.
Of course, converting every city into something like Masdar is going to take a long while, perhaps many decades. But it shows us what the possibilities are.
We’re undoubtedly moving towards micro grids for the future and combined heat and power (CHP) technologies are going to be at the heart of this. The challenge is that each area will have its own needs and resources and how they operate is going to vary – there’s really going to be no one size fits all option.
You could be in a community that uses a CHP system like biomass which is close enough to deliver heating as well as electricity. You might have a network of solar panels, on roofs and on farmland to deliver electricity with the help of industrial battery storage but combined with retrofitted air or ground source heat pumps for each property.
Initially, co-generating and achieving self-sufficiency will work well with and suit communities such as universities or industrial estates. There are plenty of drivers for change, though how long it will take is anyone’s guess – we’re still at the early stages of development. Better energy security is one big reason to go down this route as is the urgent need to decarbonise electricity generation and keep control of prices.
Of course, there are plenty of hurdles to overcome, not least the current rigid state of our own national grid and the Government’s reluctance to embrace renewables and CHP and, instead, focus on options such as nuclear and the deeply unpopular fracking trend.
Thirty years from now, however, we may well see a totally different power infrastructure.