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Be smart – or vanish

Why Utilities need to actively develop smart Micro-Grids
The energy market is changing rapidly. This is true not only for the USA and Europe but on a global level.  Possibly the most important change is the one towards more decentralized systems. This is challenging the utility industry. Utilities historically have developed by integrating small microgrids which grew around mills and other small-scale generators (today we would say prosumers). This is why utilities developed along the entire value chain: They integrated these micro distribution grids in a more stable larger (Transport) grid and replaced decentralized generation by more cost-efficient central power plants. This highly efficient centralized system was allowing industrial development as we know it. At its time it was possibly the only way to serve large, strongly energy depending production like steel, paper or the upcoming chemical industry. The centralized energy system did not result from an oligopolistic market, but the industry structure derived from an efficient technical design.
There are several reasons why this formerly beneficiary system is challenged today. Not all apply in all markets but some of them do, so decentralization of energy markets is a global trend. Specifically, in most industrial markets the new energy regime is driven by politics favoring small scale, decentral renewable generation. Subsidies on renewables devalue existing large thermic power plants. Even large-scale hydropower plants do not easily pass strict environmental and social feasibility analysis. But independent of any political setting there is another more fundamental reason for the growing competitiveness of a decentralized energy design. While the first phase of industrial development is known for its industrial clusters (often grown close to energy sources like coal or water) which shaped many geographic areas for more than a century, later phases are much more dynamic and do less depend on geographic proximity. Within a dynamic industry setting where businesses are set up and closed or moved somewhere else on a regular basis a static centralized infrastructure loses competitiveness. In many emerging markets this dynamism as well expands towards those areas which are today not connected to the central grid but offer inexpensive land or new agricultural products which can be sold abroad at high prices. Finally, the political will and the industrial demand for decentralized systems today encounter renewable generation even at small size at competitive costs compared to large size thermic power plant. For the most prominent renewable technology photovoltaic in the North (with less radiation) this competitiveness is given only as grid parity, meaning central generation plus transport is as expensive as photovoltaic on site. In the Southern hemisphere photovoltaic is already a competitive source empowering decentralized energy infrastructure.
While decentralized generation has caught up with centralized generation plants, distribution systems with a large portion of decentralized renewable generation capacity are often inefficient. There are basically four reasons for this inefficiency: (1) Missing price mechanism supporting grid operations, (2) high costs to operate such a system stable, (3) large amount of excess energy (exported or not being used at all) and (4) sub-utilized interface between microgrid and its feeder system. These are basically the same reasons that in the last century supported the centralization of the grid system. What is needed is an intelligent or smart decentralized distribution system.
An intelligent distribution system with mainly decentralized generation requires more than smart meters and it is different from today popular so called smart home or home storage solutions. These offers photovoltaic, battery and basic load management for the individual household. Some providers of home storage solutions integrate customers in a community model to allow exchange of autogenerated electricity. But these communities are barely more than contract partners within a fixed price net metering model. Individual home solutions – even within sales-and-purchase communities – do not solve any inefficiency issues decentralization faces. These systems are either completely self-sufficient – in this case they are expensive – or they rely on central grid services like a parasite of its host. Sustainable decentralization requires an intelligent control and steering mechanism between the households which build a microgrid.
While there are possibly different steering mechanisms, establishing a local market with the price as variable that guides demand and supply according to the aggregated demand function and the aggregated cost functions seems promising. Technically this does require a dynamic forecasting and load management (at least for major loads which are used in a price-sensitive manner). At first glance a market model would solve the four major issues shown above. It would set a price for photovoltaic and battery storage which would control demand and thereby reduce necessary installed reserve storage and generation capacity. This mechanism would as well be consistent with the functioning of the feeder grid and could therefore supply itself services to this grid which would be valued with the same “currency”.
Technically this steering mechanism might be completely decentralized based on individual processors in each household like the blockchain technology (once necessary processing capacity comes down to acceptable limits) or it might work between a central unit and individual processors. In either way it steers the local market place towards an efficient optimum given generation, demand and battery storage capacity at a defined point in time.
Micro grids do open (within a given legal framework) a possibility for traditional utilities to re-define their role using some of their traditional strengths. But new entrants can equally well enter this space and perform wherever the incumbent does not adapt. This gives room to numerous co-operations between new entrants or between new companies and the incumbent offering their services or developing new business models along the value chain. Incumbent utilities may be smart – or vanish.
About the Author
Dr. Karl Kolmsee the CEO of Smart Hydro Power, studied agricultural and philosophy at the universities of Hamburg and Goettingen, Germany. After his PhD he has spent most of his professional career in the energy business – first as consultant at A.T. Kearney later as manager at E.ON, Europe’s largest private utility, and member of the board at Schmack biogas, one of the pioneers of the biogas market in Europe. In 2009 Karl Kolmsee has been nominated professor for energy management at Applied University of Kufstein, Austria. His main areas of academic work are international energy markets and renewable energy. In 2010 he founded Smart Hydro Power to focus on design and commercialization of kinetic pico hydro power systems with main focus on rural electrification for emerging markets like India, Latin America and Eastern Africa. Today Smart Hydro Power offers complete solutions for off grid solutions and micro grids.