Cleantech Market Intelligence
Denmark, Silicon Valley, and the Smart Grid
I moderated a panel on smart grid networking technology at an event last week billed as “Smart Grid Applied 2011” that featured a number of Danish policy innovators and entrepreneurs involved in an exchange program with California. Held at SRI International’s office in Menlo Park, just on the outskirts of Silicon Valley, I was struck by a couple of lasting insights.
For one, the Danes are unabashedly excited and proud of their role on being the cutting edge of everything green when it comes to energy, and the enthusiasm is quite contagious. Given the enormous pushback on smart meters within Pacific Gas & Electric’s (PG&E) service territory, it was a breath of fresh air to hear and see a country so motivated to make a distributed energy future work right in their own backyard.
Of course, being such a small country that also happens to host a company – Vestas – that manufactures more wind turbines than any other, it is clear that the cultural differences between Denmark and the United States are stark; citizens there take much more ownership of the energy future. Since most of the wind turbines (as well as Combined, Heat & Power (CHP) units) are owned locally in Denmark, many of the NIMBY issues that have plagued the wind industry in the United States simply don’t exist. Astonishingly, when I asked Lene Gronning, who manages the smart grid pilot “Bright Green Island Bornholm,” if she had heard anything about the pushback on smart meters in the United States, she quite simply said, “No.” It appeared such a thought was beyond her comprehension!
Of course, a big difference between deployments in Europe and the United States is that the vast majority of Europe’s smart meters employ power line communications, eliminating the potential fears surrounding radio frequency potential health impacts with a pure wireless mesh approach. No matter what the science will ultimately tell us, it is also true that the Danish people realize their extremely distributed energy mix requires some form of a more responsive and intelligent grid, whereas in the United States, the need is less pressing due to far lower penetration levels of solar PV, small wind, and micro-CHP.
Perhaps one of the most creative approaches being deployed by Denmark today is to utilize the country’s district heating network as storage for variable wind power. As the figure above demonstrates, there is a remarkable correlation. Smart grid technology is being envisioned to convert carbon-free electricity from distributed wind into heat in an extremely efficient way. The market potential for this sort of energy transformation is huge, as approximately half of homes that lie outside of current district heating areas represent a market of 500,000 heat pumps, fifteen times the current heat pump capacity that exists today.
Along with a host of Danish start-ups and research institutions, several U.S. firms also participated, among them Spirae of Fort Collins, which is one of the leading vendors in a six year research project in Denmark called the Cell Controller Project. Just last week, the microgrid islanding functions were being tested out in what remains the world’s largest VPP/microgrid network, representing a maximum peak load of 61 MW. In contrast, the so-called FortZED project, located in Fort Collins, Colorado, and also being developed with the help of Spirae, is eking its way forward with a 5 MW pilot that could grow to 50 MW. This summer, the first attempt to shave 20% off the peak load of five different sites located within the zero energy district will take place.
Other presenters from the United States included heavyweights such as IBM, Intel, and Cisco, the types of Silicon Valley heavyweights that the Danes hoped to learn from in terms of entrepreneurship (and perhaps hard knuckles capitalism). IBM’s strategy manager of global energy and utilities, Mozhi Habibi, made a poignant point. The reason why we need a VPP framework is because “we need to model something that is not a power plant, as if it were a power plant,” in order to speak the same language as utilities. “Customer payments become the equivalent of fuel O&M costs.” She added, “The VPP does more with less. It develops a tight link between wholesale and retail transmission and distribution systems.” The VPP allows utilities to manage a large number of assets – solar PV and Electric Vehicles – it does not own.
Lorie Wigle, general manager of Intel’s Eco-Technology, focused on the concept of Home Energy Networks. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could install small wind turbines at your home just like any new device you add to your computer, where the complete system is programmed to configure it automatically?” she asked. A compelling vision indeed, but if anyone knows anything about wind turbines, the complexity of siting and installing a small wind turbine may never be that simple. (Hopefully, Intel will prove me wrong!) The focus of Intel is to make energy personal, with its rollout of “Open PEAK” for residents and POEM – Personal Office Energy Manager – for commercial operations. Wigle claimed these systems, with user-friendly dashboards, could reduce consumption by 30% through automated energy saving functions.
Jennifer Lin, director of smart grid product marketing for Cisco, repeated the premise that her company believes that the smart grid will be bigger than the Internet. (What she didn’t say is that it is also increasingly becoming highly dependent upon the IP protocols that govern the internet.) Cisco is agnostic to the underlying technology, whether Z-wave, Zigbee, or GreenWave. It sees its role as providing a standard, secure network of networks to solve issues of fragmentation, optimizing the diverse devices linked to the smart grid.
Perhaps the most surprising presentation, at least for anyone living in Pacific, Gas & Electric’s service territory, came from San Jose’s Echelon. The company’s smart meters, which rely upon power line communications are widely deployed throughout Europe, but have gained little traction here in the United States. According to Kimberly Getchen, director of utility solutions at Echelon, the company has installed a total of a whopping 35 million smart meters worldwide, 660,000 of them in Denmark. A survey by Denmark’s largest customer-owned utility – Seas-NVE – showed 95% customer satisfaction with Echelon’s smart meters, registering a 16% reduction in energy consumption, which amounted to $10 million in aggregate savings.