The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy
In 1877, industrial pioneer Werner von Siemens famously said electric lighting “would never fully replace gas lighting.” That statement was all the more remarkable since it was the dynamo machine, invented by von Siemens himself, that paved the way for the change he predicted would not happen. Thankfully, this prediction aside, von Siemens did see the electrical revolution coming, and positioned his company to capitalise on it.
Industrial revolutions have a strange habit of happening before we are even aware of them. Over the last 140 years, innovations in how we generate and distribute power have surprised even those who thought they were ahead of the curve. But now we are on the cusp of a different kind of technological revolution. Unlike all the previous ones, this one is not coming from the top and eventually trickling down to consumers. This time, the change will come from within.
The power you consume will no longer come from just one place, and you will no longer be just a passive consumer of it. If done right, it will be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reshape our industry for the better: We can digitalise, decarbonise, decentralise and provide power to the over 770 million people that do not have access to electricity: a sustainable energy transition.
For decades, we have been watching wind and solar power become more affordable and efficient. However, we are yet to fully solve a central problem: the integration of these technologies into the power grid. Unlike traditional power plants, which can produce a specific amount of power day and night, renewable energies tend to produce power in high and only somewhat predictable bursts. Sometimes they produce more power than the grid needs, while at other times they do not produce enough.
Renewable energies have also decentralised our electricity generation. Not everyone can install a gas turbine in our homes, but it is easier to put solar panels on our roofs. Herein lies another challenge, though: When your electricity is generated in thousands of places instead of one, how do you make sure it all ends up where it needs to go?
Similarly with electric cars, there are opportunities and challenges here. As electric car adoption becomes widespread, everyone will have a battery at home, one they will be charging regularly. This will create additional demand in the grid that needs to be carefully managed. But it also means we will suddenly have large-scale, distributed electrical storage. If a way can be found to tap into those batteries and enable them to take and give power when it is needed, a host of problems could be solved.
In the past, questions of supply and demand in the electrical grid were more easily solved. But when everyone is consuming and producing power, and large-scale power comes from sources like wind and solar that cannot just be turned off and on, we need to adjust how we think about these things. We can no longer simply turn the proverbial tap or faucet on and off. Now, we have to intelligently predict, manage and stabilise our power grids.
To make this happen, we need the grid to become smart. Every node, every solar cell, every sensor has to be able to talk to every other one, so everyone is on the same page. You also need extremely smart software to manage it all. Ideally, the software would act like an orchestra conductor, balancing all the different voices in the power grid to achieve harmony. The conductor would need to be able to move quickly, responding to changes in fractions of a second.
This opens up perhaps the most exciting possibility of the revolution: virtual power plants. Gone are the days when a power plant consisted of a single building, producing all the electricity for a region and passing it through substations and converters to homes and businesses.
Instead, thousands of small power sources, ranging from rooftop solar cells, car batteries and wind turbines to small power plants will all come together to generate the same amount of power that the large, centralised plant once did. The power plant will live on as a virtual one: Software controls will direct electricity to where it is needed, routing it from an area that is making more than it needs to areas that are making less.
To get there, we need everyone to pitch in. Industries and governments need to be willing to move forward more boldly. Old infrastructure needs to be upgraded, and lawmakers need to be willing to bet on cutting-edge technologies.
Consumers have a part to play as well. It is not often that individuals have a chance to decide how an energy revolution will play out. But every time someone decides to install a solar panel on their roof, a smart meter in their basement, or a smart battery in their garage, they are casting a vote for a greener, more digital future. It will take all of us to get there, but we have the same advantage that Werner von Siemens did 140 years ago: We know what we have to do.
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