Monday, 18 October 2010

Smart beer

I’m sitting at anchor on my solar PV powered boat as I type away on this laptop. Not far away the harbour is stuffed full of portable generators as 300 boat owners struggle to keep their beers cold after the electricity was cut off due to non-payment.

Pretty dumb really and not a reflection on everyday reality in suburbia… not yet at least. But we face many challenges in the near future if we want to keep enjoying our current lifestyles. It seems that energy resources are reaching peak, just as our demand for energy is increasing. Add the issue of the heat we are generating with the burning of fossil fuels and the scale of the challenge becomes clear.

So what’s the solution? In short there is no simple answer, no miracle cure. We could stop drinking beer, but granny needs her life support machine to keep functioning. Clearly we have to reduce our demand for energy and become smarter about how we utilise it. It is madness for example that we wastefully burn 70% of the oil we extract in planes, automobiles and ships when much of our transport needs can be met by electric motors and plug-in hybrids which are over 95% efficient in converting energy into motion (compared with a petrol engine at 40%). The only problem here is the massive demand for electrical power this would involve.
So how do we create the infrastructure we need to keep our transport systems running? The answer lies with smart grids. The combination of a responsive electrical grid, coupled with smart meters and linked to intelligent devices provides the solution. If we could make our devices truly intelligent by using open source protocols we could achieve a dynamic response network, which would keep the lights running while charging our vehicles. Believe it or not, we do have the electrical reserve in the system to enable this to happen today. How? Peak demand occurs during the day, but at night power stations have to maintain a spinning reserve which electric vehicles could use to charge their batteries. Fully charged vehicles can also provide power back into the grid when it’s needed at peak times during the day.

This just one example of the advantages of smart solutions. Builiding management systems have been using intelligent control systems based on open protocols such as LON for years. Such systems typically save 30% on energy bills due to the intelligent interoperation of systems. Smart solutions can also be found in street lighting and industrial automation and in just about any system that requires energy.

Now while none of this is new (the technology is already there)the problem is that we are simply not adopting it, or we are not adopting truly smart systems. Smart meters must allow communication at the device level and not just display information about energy consumption. They must also provide real value-added to the customer by enabling them to decide when that want their devices to operate. Flexible pricing provides a great incentive here.
We also need to build trust and confidence that smart solutions are in all of our interests. Badly implemented smart meters which only serve to allow power companies to save money and remote reading and cutting people off for non-payment are not the solution. The real benefits that smart systems provide is ensuring energy supplies, energy security and addressing climate change by increased efficiency, reduced demand and dynamic response.

As for the beers, the solar system on my boat just about keeps them cold, but this isolated solution is not suitable for everyone and judging by the pile of noisy generators in the harbour, the price people are paying for not preparing for the future is a high one. After all, how can anyone enjoy a quiet drink when they are chocking in fumes and deafened by the noise? Seems rather dumb to me. So let’s build a smart future, one which is open, fair and flexible. I for one would drink to that!

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