The Hidden Revolution

Ever wonder about the billions of dollars of equipment and infrastructure needed for you to be able to turn on your bedroom light, wash the laundry, or perform any of the hundreds of daily tasks one does that require steady, reliable electricity?   As the Director of Commercial Clean technology here at the Innovation Center Denmark, I think about it all the time.  I think about it because there is a mostly hidden revolution happening around the world with Denmark and California leading the cause.

At the Innovation Center Denmark, Silicon Valley, we recognize the unique bridge we form between these two innovative Smart Grid economies.  In 2013, we will therefore launch the Smart Grid Advisory Group to bring together experienced operators, researchers, and entrepreneurs from both Denmark and California Smart Grid sectors to foster partnerships, transactions, and to push the state of the art in grid technologies and operations.

We want to change the fact that most people have little idea of what makes the power grid tick or how dependent their lifestyles are on it.  However, when you experience a prolonged power outage, you soon realize how important a reliable power supply is, how quickly it can be interrupted, and how long – and frustrating – it can be to get it back.  Part of the reason for all of this is that we are dealing with electricity and it cannot (yet) be efficiently collected for example, on a sunny day and stored for a rainy one.  Instead, engineers, utilities, regulators, and entrepreneurs have had to build a machine so vast and so complex that it can generate electricity virtually at the instant when you turn on a light switch or plug your phone into its charger.  Multiply that responsiveness across billions of devices demanding electricity, hundreds of power plants producing the electricity, and thousands of miles of wires transmitting the electricity, and it’s pretty close to a miracle that the machine works at all, never mind that it works steadily and constantly throughout the day and year.

In addition, demand is anything but steady – people turn on and turn off devices throughout the day.   This unsteady demand requires electricity supply and generation that can meet it even at the busiest ‘peak’ times, and quickly ramp down when it slows.  Fortunately, for the incredible people who work in the power supply field, there is a lot of historical data and hard lessons learned such as the great Northeast blackout of 2003 that enable operators to pretty accurately predict what the demand will be and when, and how much power they will need to meet it.

Adapting big changes to this equation is extremely challenging. Failure to adequately adjust can be catastrophic, which is one big reason why the utility industry tends to be so conservative – when power goes out, people don’t just lose money, they can lose life and limb.

It is incredible then to consider that grids around the world are experiencing just such rapid change right now with the push for electric vehicles, solar power, wind farms, iPhones, and the mammoth data centers to power all of our Google searches and Facebook posts.

Meeting the entire unprecedented surge in electricity demand is a rapid increase in the proportion of renewable energy making up the supply.  That renewable energy, often sourced from wind and solar energy, is relatively unpredictable.  This unpredictable supply or intermittency effectively adds yet another challenge to keeping the power demand and supply of the power grid in balance.

With a goal of moving from 30% today to 100% renewable electricity generation by 2050, Denmark is arguably the most experienced market in the world with balancing these new electricity supply and demand dynamics.  California also has ambitions goals too increase the share of renewable generated electricity in its energy mix, but on a far larger scale than even Denmark due to the relative sizes of the two economies.

Viva la Revolución Oculto!!

By Patrick Stanton

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