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Two sleepy communities show the way in renewable electricity

Andrew Mourant

Andrew Mourant welcomes you to Fur, a windswept community off Denmark’s northern tip, and the nursery for an energy-saving experiment that could have implications worldwide for cutting power consumption and CO2 emissions.

From small beginnings, who knows? The low key nature of a new pilot belies its potential significance. It involves around 40 households, many newly-equipped with solar panels and heat pump – on an island of 900 inhabitants, four minutes by ferry from the Danish mainland. The project has been constructed internationally with 3.5 million Euros of EU funding, and brings together seven partners.

If this succeeds in regulating demand at a local level – for electricity created from renewable sources – expect global reverberations, though not immediately. Power generation through sun and wind is one thing, but coping with the fluctuations of supply and requirement is a very different matter.

It’s something that’s long exercised Germany, Europe’s biggest green power producer. German grids are notoriously ill-prepared for the consequences of Energiewende, the country’s energy revolution that has run since 2000 and was accelerated after the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

Fukushima drove Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, to scrap plans for expanding nuclear power – indeed, she ordered the closure of all reactors by 2022. But it also triggered what one industry insider has called an ‘unruly, subsidy-fed explosion of wind, solar and biomass power.’

With a 20-year guarantee of attractive feed-in tariffs, small wonder German states scrambled to produce far more power than they need. Yet while inconsistent levels of wind and sun power create the need for backup generators, inconsistency is the very thing that causes investors to think twice about spending their money that way.

Last year, Germany opened what was claimed to be Europe’s largest commercial lithium-ion battery plant for storing renewable power. Located at Schwerin, around 100 km east of Hamburg, it was built for local provider Wemag AG, which supplies an area of 8,600 sq km, and in 2013 generated around 80% of electricity from wind and sun. Its storage capacity is projected to be five megawatts and, Wemag claimed, would enable the company to go 100% renewable.

More, and better, battery storage is one solution. Ultra-responsive grids that manage electricity demand at local level are another glimpse of the future. These could help reduce the transmission of electricity over long distances to balance regional over- and under-supply. That’s the premise for the GreenCom project, now striving to fashion a smart energy management system (SMES) on Fur.

Daytime oversupply is a particular problem. When the sun shines, photovoltaic (PV) systems generate more power than can be absorbed in regional grids, and sometimes when high demand for electricity doesn't exist. Yet at others – evenings – the demand peak can be hard to satisfy, and puts the grid under strain.

So what to do? Greencom is a grassroots attempt to manage supply at a hyperlocal level – something that could, over time, cut the need to invest in wide-area grids. This need is most acute when it comes to dealing with ‘highly volatile’ solar power.

Households are being equipped with smart meters and networked
sensors that can, for example, measure temperatures. The idea is that in ‘near real-time’ the system continuously collects and analyses energy consumption data alongside locally-generated renewable electricity.

The system connects to household devices. It can help control the operation of heat pumps, refrigerators, washing machines or chargers for electric vehicles, says Daniela Fisseler, GreenCom project manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT. (Fraunhofer, based near Bonn, is one of the partner organisations.)

The theory is that balancing energy demand at a local level will help avoid creating instability in the centralised grid – ‘a giant step forward’ in European energy distribution.

The operation is run day-to-day on Fur by Danish partner company Energimidt. According to business manager Erling Klemmesen, the existing power grid is under pressure because more and more sustainable energy is being added to it. “That gives us options – a costly expansion of the grid, or developing an ‘intelligent’ grid where power is used when the wind blows,” he says.

The ‘philosophy’, he adds, is that consumers may either be rewarded or punished for consumption. “If you use power when there's plenty in the grid, you’re rewarded with lower rates. Conversely, you pay higher rates when there isn't a lot of power available.”

What’s been the impact on bills? So far, says Dr Maurizio Spirito, project coordinator for GreenCom, and manager at the research and innovation centre ISMB (Istituto Superiore Mario Boella) in Turin, this point has yet to be reached. “But GreenCom is developing business models that could potentially integrate incentives for users to change their behaviour,” he says.

Energimidt’s Gitte Wad Thybo, who’s managing things on the ground, says one way of doing this could be to make people aware how much electricity others use – ‘this motivates them to save energy themselves.’ Thybo has spoken of a ‘concrete target’ of consumers saving 7.5% on electricity consumption. “Our task is to find the right platform and method for sharing these data and, not least, to find out what our consumers think, and what they consider important.”

But it’s a complicated exercise, and sometimes a bumpy ride – Fisseler has told REF of the challenges when dealing with ‘real people’ instead of a lab environment – failure of off-the shelf hardware components; data quality; people unplugging hardware. “It’s a slow process, but we are improving,” she said.

Denmark is one of the world’s most environmentally-conscious countries. There was eagerness on Fur to sign up to Greencom, yet some are disappointed by the technical failures that left them unable to follow energy usage on-line and share power consumption data.

This matters to Niels Faerk and his wife Sonja Justesen. They were delighted to be equipped with a new heat pump and solar panels, and take great care – sun hours permitting – only to use the washing machine and dishwasher in daylight hours. All households taking part were equipped with a graphical user interface (GUI), designed to tell them all about their production and consumption.

But, says Justesen, things haven’t worked – and, so far, they’ve had no means of measuring the impact of their usage pattern. “When we turn on our plugs, we are supposed (to be able to) read all the data, but we can’t,” she said.

Justesen also feels Energimidt has failed to keep them abreast of developments, saying that workshops meant to be held after the system was installed have yet to take place. “It’s a really good idea, but the lack of information is disappointing and frustrating,” she added.

Another user, John Bertelsen has also experienced problems accessing data – ”we couldn’t see where we were using our energy,” he told REF. Yet spectacularly lower bills, rather than shared information, tell him the story. In 2014 Bertelsen used exactly the same amount of electricity as in the previous two years, yet a heat pump and solar panels have saved him a small fortune – 22,000 kroner (around £2000) – since he switched from oil.

Despite its technical failings, Spirito says that the project has yielded preliminary observations. “Some people postpone their daily bath from morning to evening if they don’t have enough hot water in their container and the photovoltaic system doesn’t produce electricity to power their heat pump because the sun isn’t shining.

“Some families are interested in reducing stand-by consumption and others in how much electricity they need to buy when the photovoltaic system is not producing enough.”

The three-phase project – collecting data; extending infrastructure to local renewable power generating units; and developing this to facilitate stable demand – was due to end in October 2015. But it’s now been extended to April 2016 so things can be fully evaluated through another Danish winter. “New opportunities arose, such as the inclusion of electrical storage units in the pilot, so some activities were re-adjusted,” says Spirito.

GreenCom’s goals, he says, include reduced energy consumption; cutting prices; using new market structures, and postponing investment in grid reinforcement. “It’s very ambitious – the aim is to validate several technologies developed in research labs. It’s being exposed to the real behaviour of customers, who react differently to different situations.”

What might it all mean for, above all, Germany’s notorious fluctuating supply and demand? “It’s too early to draw conclusions now,” says Spirito. “A general challenge for real life pilots is to extrapolate results to different countries. This is due to the heterogeneity in Europe’s energy sector – (different) regulations; market structure and players; incentives mechanisms, and cultural differences.

“It’s also important to experiment as much as possible at laboratory level – with commercially-available devices and in project-developed hardware and software – before rolling out technology into real-life pilots. And it’s critical to have a dedicated technical and managerial team with some members close to the pilot site – to manage installation and maintenance, and interact with residents.”

What’s been learnt?

It was, says Spirito, inevitable that challenges would arise when moving the hardware from lab to field installation.

And they certainly did. Ways had to be found to monitor Danish direct-wired electrical appliances that don’t have a removable socket. A dashboard had to be developed to let the service operator know if any sensor, or gateway, was disconnecting from the system. Then there was the need to re-position some nodes to guarantee zigbee (a low cost low power network that can transmit data over long distances via a network of intermediate devices) radio coverage under all environmental conditions.

Although the graphic user interface is ‘is extremely simple’, the systems has assembled a plethora of information – for some people, perhaps, an overload. As system managers found users were often asking the same basic questions, a guide and frequently asked questions (FAQ) section was introduced, including scope for feedback. “This has, and will, continue to result in new features,” says Spirito.

Project managers concede there were problems with sensors and the local data collection infrastructure – ‘inevitable at this complexity level’ – but claim these have now been solved. The GUI itself ‘has not failed’ during the trial, and the data that it presents has been ‘slowly improving.’


Andrew Mourant is a freelance journalist whose specialisms include renewable energy, education and the rail industry


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Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling