The future of energy

Published Tuesday, April 11, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Energy is what makes our human world go round.  Virtually every part of our lives – eating, travelling, shopping, staying warm or cool – depends on it.

What will the future of energy look like as we transition away from the fossil fuels that cause climate change?  Here are a few themes, ideas and visions presented at last week’s Energy Innovation Forum in Fredericton. 

Consumers

Energy illiteracy is an unfortunate consequence of today’s highly reliable electricity grid and relatively low power prices (NB rates are among the lowest in Canada); the average homeowner knows very little about how much power they use, when they use it or where it comes from.  The savings-conscious energy consumer of tomorrow will want to become more aware of their consumption pattern in order to take advantage of, as one presenter put it, “rush hour rewards”: incentives for shifting dishwashing, laundry, showering, vehicle charging and other flexible loads away from peak demand times.

Greater energy literacy will be enabled by smart power meters that provide detailed consumption information; policies like time-of-day pricing (discounts for off-peak usage); and technology like real-time smartphone alerts.  One presenter shared that her utility in Georgia presently sends alerts the evening before hot days advising that power will be more expensive tomorrow, allowing her to turn off non-essential loads and save.  

In the future, easy-to-use smartphone apps will integrate thermostats, lighting, smart appliances, home security systems and more.  Consumers will retain control over their preferences, but have the convenience of set-and-forget.

Transportation

Over 30 battery-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles are now available in Canada, with more on the way.  The new electric Chevy Bolt is rated for 380 kilometers between charges – far more than most people’s daily travel.  

Smart charging, where power flows into and out of plugged-in vehicles constantly in accordance with minute-by-minute grid needs, will soon be a reality.  The first smart charging pilot program in Canada was conducted in Fredericton last year.

Electric transit buses, which can charge in five minutes and then operate for an hour, are now available.  Besides being three times as efficient as conventional buses, a bonus: they can operate indoors.  Imagine a bus that can come right inside the station to pick you up!  

Storage

Energy storage is key to integrating intermittent renewable power sources like wind, solar and tidal into the grid.  One presenter profiled new grid-scale batteries with enough capacity to power a neighbourhood and rated for 15,000 charge-discharge cycles.  That’s equal to once a day for over 25 years.  

Another speaker mentioned his new garage door opener, with its battery backup, as part of the coming ‘internet of things’, where power-storing and power-consuming devices of all types – appliances, heaters, coolers – communicate with each other and the electricity grid constantly to manage power smoothly and efficiently.

Disruption

The disruption that has happened in sectors like music (iTunes), accommodation (AirBNB) and taxis (Uber) is forcing power utilities to re-examine their business models and reinvent themselves.  One presenter described it as being like trying to change an engine on a 747 while in flight.

For example, cheaper solar panels mean that more and more electricity consumers will become electricity producers – but only for part of the day.  That’s disruptive to both revenue and grid management.  Some utilities are considering getting into the rooftop solar panel or storage battery business – any combination of supplying, installing, leasing or financing.  A Vermont utility is actually helping customers go off-grid.

And utilities are now building Virtual Power Plants: software platforms that will stitch divergent and varied sources of power together and match them with real-time loads.  Complicated, but with a big advantage: virtual plants are far cheaper than those multi-billion dollar bricks-and-mortar types.

So sit tight and get ready for the future of power: high-tech, integrated and efficient, with unprecedented opportunities for owning, knowing and managing your energy.