COVID-19 will accelerate the revolution in energy systems
May. 29, 2020
Distributed energy systems generate and store power at or near where it will be used. They are flexible and scalable making the power system more resilient in the face of crises. Digitalization is vital for the decentralization of the energy system. Distributed energy systems can spark fresh thinking about collaboration.
Around the world, healthcare capacity is being expanded rapidly to care for infected patients. Entire emergency hospitals – like the Westchester County Center Alternate Care Facility in White Plains, New York – are being built within days and weeks. Having a reliable power supply is a prerequisite for such projects. Modern energy technologies offer the best chance of success. Today’s decentralized approaches are fast, flexible and scalable.
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1. Distributed approaches can improve crisis readiness
Distributed energy systems (DESs) – in which power is generated and stored at or near where it will be consumed – are enhancing efficiency and transparency and making energy infrastructure more robust.
Rapidly deployable DESs can also be an effective part of our response to other types of crises, too. They can help swiftly restore power after hurricanes, flooding or other natural disasters. And they can help ensure services and businesses continue to operate during nuisance outages.
In 2017, Blue Lake Rancheria, a century-old Native American reservation in Northern California, launched its low-carbon community microgrid. The huge disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how much modern societies rely on electricity and the Blue Lake Rancheria DES microgrid system has proved invaluable – for the second time. When public safety power shutoffs left the surrounding community in darkness during the wildfires last year, Blue Lake Rancheria’s systems were up and running, thanks to their own power supply, connected to a microgrid.
In addition, the supply-chain bottlenecks caused by coronavirus-related shutdowns have highlighted the need to reduce dependencies through diversification. For our energy needs, decentralized and controllable DES power generation and storage solutions can provide end users with local resilience or even full independence from the grid – often combined with economic advantages. Grid operators also stand to benefit because DESs can manage demand to reduce peak loads when infrastructure nears its capacity limits. In this way, distributed solutions can make our power supply more robust – especially if we employ the data they generate.
2. It’s time to reap the benefits of digitalization in the energy sector
The coronavirus is accelerating the digital transformation of society and the economy, and we should seize the resulting opportunity. Video conferencing is overcoming geographical distances. Our social lives have shifted online. Authors are doing public readings on the internet, concerts are being streamed, and school kids are doing their lessons online.
The digitalization of work is also progressing. Companies like Siemens are relying heavily on digital technology to remain in contact with their customers – not only through video calls, but also by using digital platforms to deliver remote services that keep businesses running. We might say that the crisis is enabling technologies to grow up and take their place in the world. We’re finally using capabilities that have long been at our disposal. New practices are emerging.
But are these advances in digitalization improving power supply? The energy industry is certainly not starting from scratch here. This sector has been under permanent stress for years in the wake of two intertwined revolutions: the digital revolution and the revolution of energy systems. One would be unthinkable without the other.
The digital transformation has been a major cause of the world’s increasing hunger for energy. Experts predict that, by as early as 2025, digitalization could cause more greenhouse gases than road traffic does. For the energy sector, however, going digital is indispensable for coming to grips with rising complexity.
Integrating distributed technologies and intermittent renewable energy is making our energy systems increasingly intricate. Nevertheless, the digital links that connect the individual system components provide valuable data. Analyzing this information makes it possible to improve load management and detect deviations early enough to prevent potential faults before they arise.
Digitalization is enhancing efficiency and transparency while making infrastructure more robust and reliable – for example, by using smart grids to link disparate systems such as buildings and power grids. Once merely isolated energy consumers, today’s smart buildings are prime areas of application for distributed energy systems. These connected facilities are becoming active contributors within the power grid by supplying energy and data.
Digital connections between power grids and buildings can unlock huge potential. Buildings account for around 40% of global energy consumption, but an average building still wastes up to 50% of the energy it consumes. Here, we could save a lot of money while simultaneously protecting the environment.
Equipping a building with digitalized, networked and intelligent systems can reduce its ecological footprint by up to 80%. A smart building is an energy-saving building that can help us fight climate change – another crisis on our agenda.
3. We can all cooperate to close the gap between climate science and economic realities
There are interesting structural parallels between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis: we need to flatten both the infection curve and the temperature curve. Both crises are global, and combating them requires international cooperation. Both force us to act with foresight. And both will inevitably lead us to critically examine how we deal with former certainties of life – such as globalization.
We now need to focus on joining forces worldwide to deal with the pandemic. But the time of reconstruction will come. And with it the opportunity to develop a new global model for prosperity and climate protection. There are some encouraging signs that this can succeed.
For example, national governments have been following the World Health Organization’s advice in a coordinated manner to contain the pandemic. Especially in the medical field, international cooperation is more important than ever. And scientists are suddenly at the centre of public debate. People are seeking and following their advice.
Researchers and their warnings play a key role in the climate debate, too. So far, however, the gap between the experts’ findings and practical implementation has been too wide. Now we have the chance to narrow it. We must manage the post-pandemic economic recovery in a sensible way to ensure that prosperity and climate protection aren’t mutually exclusive.
Due to their environmental and economic benefits, distributed energy systems can help close this gap in the strategically important area of energy policy – for instance, through better integration of renewable resources. Ensuring their success will require intensive cooperation in many areas, including standardization, funding and government policy.
Paradoxically, decentralized technologies are highly useful for enhancing system cohesion. Distributed energy systems can spark fresh thinking about how we can learn new ways of collaborating. So, let’s heed one of the most important lessons to be learned from the coronavirus crisis: we’re in this together, and we’ll only be able to meet the challenges of the future by working together.