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Electrification and digitisation of energy is key to hitting green targets, says Siemens

The planet’s appetite for energy is growing; demand for electricity shows no signs of slowing. German technology company Siemens told European Utility Week 2018 in Vienna the only way the planet will hit latest sustainability targets is through comprehensive electrification and digitisation of the energy market, and of society at large.

“We are moving in a very different energy world,” Ralf Christian, chief executive of Siemens’ energy management division, told the Vienna event.

“We are starting to see more and more energy consumption moving electric, and this is required to drive the de-carbonisation agenda of the world – otherwise we won’t hit targets… The energy system has to become significantly more intelligent.”

Latest research from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities are required if global warming is to be limited to 1.5°C, calculated as the maximum rise to retain environmental stability.

In Vienna, quoting figures from IHS Autonomy, Siemens noted consumption of electrical power is strong; it was 10,000 TWh in 1990, 25,000 TWh in 2017, and will rise by the same margin, to 40 TWh, in the period to 2040.  But there are major changes in the way that demand is being served, at the same time.

Europe is fixed to lead the energy transition, noted Christian. “Europe may be one of the forerunners when it comes to decarbonisation,” he said.

In total, annual consumption of electricity among the 28 European Union member states stands at about 2,800 TWh, or 22 per cent of the global figure. Following a decade of investment in green energy, around 30 per cent is currently served by renewable sources, notably wind power. “So 30 per cent of 22 per cent,” he said.  

Momentum for electrical energy is building. Ninety five per cent of consumer appliances run on electricity; the transition will take hold for more energy intensive usage, for appliances like cars and heating, too. In particular, the car market is electrifying its vehicles at pace, at last.

“In the next two or three years, there will be choice of 100 electric cars in Europe alone, as manufacturers launch their first electric vehicles, and in some cases there second and even third generations of electric vehicles,” he said.

“Electricity has huge advantages over other energy carriers because, once have it,you are have an extremely versatile, and efficient system, from where you can provide use cases for everything you need for modern society.”

Advances in battery storage – “from very small at home, to mid-size to large grid-scale storage” – are developing in tandem.

“We have been building our own storage systems,” said Christian, referencing Siemens work with AES, via their energy storage startup Fluence Energy, to build a record 100 MW/400 MWh battery at AES’ Alamitos power centre project in Long Beach, California, serving Southern California Edison and the Western Los Angeles area.

He also discussed developments in carbon-free fuels, to be stored and transported for later use. Notably, Siemens has launched a £1.5 million demonstrator project in the UK with various academic institutions around ‘green ammonia’, a source of hydrogen, to show the complete cycle of renewable power, including storage and conversion back to electricity.

“Power to hydrogen, for example, for longer term storage, is emerging step-by-step,” said Christian. Green power requires storage to manage supply and demand. Siemens has been dividing its home country into 20-kilometre “cells” to simulate impacts on the national energy system as increasing volumes of renewable energies come into it.

Germany is the “sector captain” for Europe’s green energy charge, he noted. The country has invested heavily in on-shore and off-shore wind farms, which are generally concentrated in the windy north. The challenge, as production of wind power goes into the black, is to deliver the power to the south, where there is little in the way of energy production from renewables.

“Take Munich, a big city in the south; there’s only consumption – there’s no production.” The challenge is replicated even in the north, closer to the source, as the distances to traffic energy increase, as power plants move out of the cities, towards coastal regions.

“We need to deal with this huge dynamic in the grid – demand will need to follow generation, more and more. We will need to see that shift… We need significantly more inter-connections.”

Complexity in the grid will increase further as energy production becomes decentralised, as residential customers, enterprises, institutions, and cities install their own green power generators, and feed back into the system. As consumers take a more active role in power generation, they will also become smarter about consumption, and demand choice in terms of supply and management.

“We are talking about millions of prosumers out there, feeding in solar and wind power into power grids. We need to start managing the grid and power system very differently – and that requires sensors, and communications technologies, and big data and analytics,” said Christian.

“We need to provide many more digital tools. Digital systems to make sure the electricity grid, as the backbone of modern society, never fails,and is fully resilient, all the time.”

Interestingly, Christian also talked about the new value from rising volumes of data from smart meters, particularly in the industrial space. On its stand, Siemens showcased sub-second meter readings, to the point it is taking data up to 20 times per second in certain factory set-ups to reveal the performance of machines on the shop floor.

“You start seeing the performance of energy, and can compare the data from machines with a year ago, and implement maintenance just on metering data,” said Christian.

It was a long way, of course, into Siemens’ own portfolio of solutions, spearheaded by its MindSphere platform, which enables dynamic grid simulation, among other capabilities – “digital twins of power systems, of micro-grids, city grids, national grids, continental grids, and right down to planning fully digital substations,” explained Christian.

The concept is to reveal the impacts of building new energy generation and storage solutions, and managing new and unscheduled peaks in demand.

“On the distribution side, we see the emergence of prosumer technologies and applications, especially in electric vehicles. What does that mean for the grid if all at once these cars come home in the evening to charge? It starts with digital twins, to be able to make smart decisions.”

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