A European Union-funded project aims to encourage a new approach to the management of electricity networks, fostering closer communication between supplier and consumer so as to maximise efficiency in power generation and consumption.
“For a utility company the ideal scenario is that you produce just enough electricity to meet demand.” This, says Dr Leire Bastida, coordinator of the EU-funded 'Energy-saving information platform for generation and consumption networks' (ENERSIP) project, was the starting point for a re-think of our current approach to electricity supply systems. Rather than being content with one-way communication flows, from supplier to consumer, this SmartGrid initiative aims to implement two-way online communication between suppliers, customers and their electrical appliances in order to optimise the way electricity is consumed. Instead of simply trying to encourage customers to cut down on their use of household appliances, the ENERSIP researchers are looking at ways to provide them with real-time information on their electricity consumption levels so that they can opt to rationalise their own consumption patterns.
Changing consumer habits
On the supplier side, the application of information and communication technology which ENERSIP is championing should enable a net reduction in wastage of electricity. Rather than making a rough estimate of demand for power across a given area, the ENERSIP approach is designed to help adjust electricity generation – from both large centralised power plants and smaller local sources such as roof-installed solar panels and wind turbines – to match demand. ‘Smart’ plugs connecting appliances with power sockets are used to send information on fluctuations in consumption in real time to a centralised system which in turn will adjust the amount of power produced. The ENERSIP web platform is also being equipped to provide users with personal advice on how to optimise, and so probably reduce, their consumption and manage their electricity bills. Dr Bastida stresses that information is the key to rational energy use, explaining: “We believe that people will make sustainable choices and take part in the optimisation process if we give them the information and help them make decisions.”
Widespread interest in smart grids
Most major players in the energy chain, both in Europe and in the United States, have been looking closely at installing smart grid technology for some time now. This trend is receiving further momentum in the current economic context, where people are being forced to make severe cost reductions, even for the most basic day-to-day needs such as electricity. Tests carried out by ENERSIP have demonstrated that the project is viable. In theory this approach could enable overall energy savings of close to 30%. Households would be able to cut their electricity bill by around 10%, leading to a parallel reduction of 9% in EU emissions of carbon dioxide. ENERSIP’s energy optimisation algorithms are already much in demand by industrial firms wishing to maximise their energy efficiency, and they are likely to enable the supplier-consumer relationship to evolve step by step. Dr Bastida emphasises however that people are the key: “We can only make significant energy savings when people change their behaviour. Systems like ENERSIP can begin to make this difference,” argues the ENERSIP coordinator.