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Are Smart Grids Energy 2.0?

Yesterday, as a part of my day job, I interviewed Bob Gilligan here in Brussels. Mr Gilligan works in the United States for GE Energy and was in town to present a Keynote Speech about his particular area of expertise, Smart Grids.

Whether we like it or not, these are the gadgets of the future around which much of the low carbon energy revolution will be based. And yet, in wider society, so little is known about them…

For decades now, energy generation has been much like publishing. One way. Utilities generate the power, the public and industry consumes it. But like publishing, the energy industry is starting to become decentralised. Just as blogs and social networking have enabled any of us to become a publisher, and to consume the news and content most relevant to us as individuals, Smart grids will help to enable us to generate our own power and sell it back to the network, and to consume in the most relevant way to us as individuals.

This ‘how’ we use energy also includes ‘when’ we use it. I would never have believed such a fact, but electricity consumed at ‘peak times’ costs 15 to 20 times more to produce. No, not 15 to 20% but 1500% to 2000% more. Staggering.

In short, this is a massive change. This is real-world innovation in action. And unlike theoretical innovation that may answer some question about life and the universe, we need to start using this technology now.

Mr Gilligan explained the change that has undergone in the energy industry in recent years. “It has become an exciting place to work again”. For years, managing a utility has simply been about – literally – keeping the lights on! But not any more. R&D spending is rocketing and graduates are flocking to the sector – though this may also say something about the tarnished reputation of the derivatives and investment banking sectors currently.

What makes this even more exciting, is that the potential to benefit the planet and humanity with this research is in many places. I asked Mr Gilligan whether there was one technology overall that could prove to prevent climate change. “There is no silver bullet” came the reply. Obviously, he sees Smart grids as being vital – that is his job after all – but there is more.

“The grid is the enabler” meaning that we receive our energy from one place and developments, improvements and efficiencies found here can pay off in many ways and many locations.

It came as a surprise to me that GE Energy want to see this technology developed along open source lines. The presumption – at least by me – is always that corporations seek control, but they view interoperability as much more important, and that requires open source technology.

He sees electric cars as being a vital development as well. When we are all asleep and energy costs are lower, perhaps we could be recharging the battery in our car?

Since a power station cannot easily be switched up during peak hours, the energy produced needs to be able to supply to our needs all the time. This means that at other times (2am?) there is lots of power and no demand. Thus, recharging car batteries during the night has the potential to reduce wastage significantly.

These are clearly valuable topics for society and the future of humanity if they can be solved. Luckily for us, just like Web 2.0, these problems are attracting talented minds.

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