Why digital technology is key to distributed energy

Sensemaking / Why digital technology is key to distributed energy

A successful energy system is unthinkable without the data and algorithms to make it 'smart', says Will Simpson.

By Will Simpson / 15 Jan 2014

Question: what do a car-sharing station, an office and a popular TV show have in common? Answer: a smart grid in Berlin.

Distributed energy systems require a number of things before they can get off the ground. Some of these are obvious: a level of community engagement and consent is a prerequisite, as is capital investment and a long-term funding model. Another essential but often overlooked factor is digital technology. Quite simply, a successful energy system is unthinkable without the data and algorithms to make it ‘smart’.

At present there are estimated to be around 300 smart grid systems in the EU. One of the smallest examples is Micro Smart Grid, a Berlin-based project run by InnoZ, an NGO funded by Deutsche Bahn that promotes decentralised energy production and consumption. It currently has three clients: a carsharing station, an office and the popular television show of Gunter Heir, but is looking to take on another 10 by the end of 2016. At present the grid produces 54kW of solar power in addition to a micro combined heat and power plant and three small noise-reduced wind turbines. Balancing these outputs to ensure the grid runs smoothly, InnoZ’s Energy Economist and Analyst Vipul Toprani explains, depends on significant data crunching and the creation of algorithms.

At the moment this happens through the cloud, which just means that the data is sent to two external processing units, Motbus and Mathlab, also in Berlin. “They are both used to create the algorithms”, Toprani explains, “and Motbus also works as a central controlling unit to bring in communication from the smart meters from every producer and consumer.”

Central to the successful working of an energy hub is the idea that data surrounding energy generation, availability and use will be shared around the network in order to enhance its efficiency as a whole. This raises a number of contentious issues, not least around governance and privacy. As smart grids become more prevalent, these questions will become more pressing. Toprani believes the role of ICT giants will add fuel to the fire when it comes to managing personal data.

Martine Tommis, Co-ordinator of the EU’s ICT Roadmap for Energy Efficient Neighbourhoods (see ‘Fast forward’), shares this concern: “Who owns the data: the company or the individual? The idea is that technology is used to share the data, but with whom?”

If the community energy movement wants to avoid hitting a wall, now could be the time to start talking tech.

Will Simpson is a freelance writer specialising in environmental resource issues.

More information: www.innoz.de

Photo credit: Corina Shafer/Flickr

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