Can Local Energy Measures Add Up To A Smart Grid?

Peter Judge thinks smart grid technologies work best applied at the grass roots level

Smart grids have to happen. Our demands for electric power are increasing, and at some point we simply can’t make the new power stations required. But how do those grids get installed? From the top down, or from the bottom up?

To some extent, your answer will depend on whether you focus on the supply or the demand side of the problem. If you want to cut demand in homes and busineses (and data centres) using efficiency measures, then you’re working from the bottom up. If you want to leave people untouched and increase energy supply with large renewable energy plants, you’re working top down.

But it’s not quite that simple. Earlier this summer a Cleantech Club event in London took a decidedly bottom-up approach, with a myriad of technologies for homes and other buildings. But the implications of their use spread beyond the local, grass-roots level.

women business tech it power electricity © Sergey Nivens ShutterstockThree great grid gadgets

The day featured two great gadgets that can (apparently) each wipe a third off the energy needs of a building. One is a composter approach from SEAB Energy, which the company CEO, Sandra Sassow, says can take the organic waste form a block of 90 flats, and give it back 30 percent of the power it needs, along with clean water.

The other is an intelligent battery called Maslow, from Moixa, which can smooth energy demands and fill in troughs of capacity from local solar panels and the like, so your house or office can draw less power from the grid – and occasionally give some back.

It’s also interesting to note that Maslow echoes some of the data centre work being done on DC power distribution. One of its clever tricks is to plug the light circuit into a DC outlet on the battery, which also feeds power for consumer gadgets in the home. That cuts out waste from transformers.

But there was a third idea that straddled top-down and bottom up. The BlueGen is a fuel cell that installs in a home or business. It’s about the size of a washing machine, and provides 36kWh of power a day, while also delivering free hot water.

It’s essentially a small gas-fired power station, located on-site. This cuts waste in transmission, and also means that the waste heat from the generation process can be harnessed and used – to provide that free hot water.

Data centres are (or should be) aware of on-site generation, and several are looking at fuel cells to provide this. The fact that fuel cells are clean and quiet is what has allowed BlueGen to offer its product, but it has also enabled Microsoft to suggest distributing the generation of power right to the racks in a data centre.

A move to commercialise this in any sector should result in cheaper, better products across the board, and make it more likely to that you’ll be able to do this in your data centre. And local generation effectively reduces the need for top-down generation.

Improving data centres is very definitely a bottom-up approach, and when you improve the efficiency of your data centre or install on-site generation, you’ll be doing it for your own (organisation’s) benefit.

But it’s not just for you. It will help redraw the grid and changes things top-down as well.

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