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Future utilities: the broader view

When I spoke at the third Utility of the Future event in Washington DC, I took the opportunity to talk about the ‘broader view’ in the energy sector. And about the ‘Energy Trilemma’ we all currently face: ensuring there is affordable, reliable and sustainable energy in the future. Renewable energy measures can provide the solution to this Trilemma.

Renewable energy is mainstream and affordable

In the short time I’ve been travelling to and from North America, renewable energy has become mainstream. I have seen the wind turbines along the cliff tops of the Columbia River Valley, the California and Nevada deserts paved with solar panels. This renewable renaissance is driven by government initiatives and the reducing cost of onshore wind and solar photovoltaics as a result of manufacturing in South East Asia. Renewable energy is now affordable.

But whilst these cost reductions are driving legislative bills and new business models in the US, other parts of the world are not yet benefitting and need to see this impact sooner. In particular, poorer countries that currently import fossil fuels, are racking up large foreign exchange bills, while suffering from pollution and security of supply issues.

Reliable infrastructure

Reliability is also a form of security. Yet in the US, unlike in Europe, there is little support for independent testing of grid equipment. In a survey carried out by Eaton in 2013, it was found that 30% of outages in the US were caused by equipment failures – a number that is echoed by our own experiences of testing equipment designs in our high voltage/high power laboratories. As such, validation testing greatly reduces the risk of equipment failure in a live grid, leading to a more reliable grid system and increased security of supply.

The cost of providing back-up supply to distributed generation hubs is another reliability hot topic. In the EU, there are plans underway to have 15% of energy generation capacity available for interconnection to adjacent markets – shifting offshore wind power to the Mediterranean and solar power back in the opposite direction. In the USA, the Tres Amigas Super Station programme – the connection of the three major grids – is expected to have a similar effect on increasing reliability.

Sustainability in a smart way

Demand response implementation is still the holy-grail when it comes to energy – an area where the US is leading through its extensive use of smart metering. Smart meters and appliances help with energy efficiency, reduce theft and improve low voltage operations management. Europe has been slower to implement smart meters, with countries like Spain and the UK leading the transition. And even though Germany has currently opted out due to cost-benefit analysis, Europe still expects to have 70% of its consumers on smart meters by 2020.

But what works in the US and Europe may not work elsewhere, and other countries need to learn from previous smart meter rollouts. DNV GL is currently assisting rollouts in Turkey and various other countries, transferring the knowledge we’ve gained from implementing over 60 rollouts in the past few years. Most recently, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have embraced sustainability with smart metering.

Security concerns

Smart devices, despite their benefits, have opened up Pandora’s Box of security, especially considering our growing reliance on smart grid control systems that run on ‘big data’. The US Department of Homeland Security estimates that over half of hacking attempts in the US are against energy companies. At the same time, consumer activist groups are worried about privacy violations and crime against households. DNV GL was a founder member of the European Network of Cyber Security, which addresses these issues in Europe in the hope for a safer, more secure energy future.

To solve this ‘Energy Trilemma’, a broad view of future utilities is needed and I have mentioned just a few of the solutions that are being implemented throughout the world. We need to continue on this course for a safer, smarter and greener future.

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