Consumer energy flexibility

Consumer energy flexibility

There are two things that have nothing to do with each other but that in real, they have to: the perplexity of a roe deer in the foothills of the Torozos hills when she founds a fence surrounding a photovoltaic park and that the 64%1 of the Spanish people do not know if our electrical supply contract is from a free or a regulated market.

The roe deer ignores the fact that the place where he walks is going to be subjected to radical changes. Tens of thousands of hectares are going to be covered with photovoltaic panels and closed by fences. We will have to see how this will afect to biodiversity, what will become of the bustards and of the foxes that walks throguh those places and if roe deers will learn to see fences before they colide with them.

But we have to take in count that human activity will be affected. All those hectares will be excluded from agriculture, shepherding will be limited and the landscape will be radically transformed, what could affect to local business of the rural tourism. In exchange of this destruction, energy will be generated without emitting greenhouse gases, energy that also will be cheap and that will help to decrease the price resulting from the daily market matching. But the sun does not usually shine at night, at least in our latitude, and what could happen with the electricity price and with the electric system stabilisation from the time of sunset or the days without sun is something that we will have to talk about in other moment.

Spanish consumers may be just as unaware as the roe deer, because it seems that manyof us are not informed about the possibility of choosing between a regulated rate and non-regulated one, and surely we are far less conscious about the changes that decarbonization of the electric system brings.

This situation of unknowledge raises the fear that it is going to be hard to let people know that they have in their hands a powerful weapon for combating the problems that could appear as a consequence of the massive introduction of renewable energies.

It is the flexibility or capacity of consuming electricity at different times than initially desired without having a loss of comfort or utility. To complicate things further, the household consumers could take better advantage of their own flexibility if they offer it on a joint basis. And this offer should be made in energy local markets, still non-existent, but already in development.

To imagine that a consumer that does not know if he has a free rate or a regulated one may become involved in the energy local market seems harder to achieve than a herd of roe deers jumping the fences of a photovoltaic park.

Several things are required for demand flexibility to be useful. On the one hand, it is necessary that all flexible electricity-consuming assets, such as air conditioning, should be able to accept external signals that allow regulating its operation automatically. Also, it is necessary that control systems that generates these signals are available and acting in an aggregated manner on a significative number of air conditioning systems, to mention a flexible load. In addition, it is necessary to define business models that will allow users to be remunerated for their flexibility. And finally, rules and regulations must be developed to define new market agents, such as the recently created independent aggregators, and to regulate the consumer participation in the new local electricity markets.

But all of this is not going to be possible without a change of mind. Consumers have to realize that there are ways to actively participate in the electricity system that go beyond switching companies when the bill seems too high. One of these ways could be energy communities, which are already opening the door to collective self-consumption and will hopefully soon also open the door to flexible, consumer-centered demand-side management.

Perhaps these communities allow the consumer to adapt to the new electricity system in the same way that roe deers of Torozos hills will have to adapt to a new environment full of unfamiliar things.


The dynamic electricity prices and the washing machines with initiative

The dynamic electricity prices and the washing machines with initiative

The day all of us enjoy electricity dynamic prices thanks to the smart grid, we will see how the washing machine and other home appliances come into life. And they will do it to allow us to pay less for the energy they need to do their duties. This will be one of the advantages of dynamic prices that are those that change along the day to encourage us to use energy when there is a surplus and to dissuade us of using energy when there is a shortage.

To have a better understanding of how dynamic prices will impact on our lives, there has been a research project conducted in Belgium that involved 250 families equipped with smart home appliances, namely washing machines, tumble dryers, dishwashers, water heaters and electric car chargers. Smart home appliances are those that receive information about electricity rates and that can make decisions about their own operation. For the purposes of the project, the day was divided into six time slots with different electricity prices according to the energy market. The families involved in the experiment were divided into two groups.

Researchers of Liner Intelligent Networks project in a demostration

The first group got information about next day electricity prices through an app installed in a mobile device. Then, they have to plan the use of the appliance for the next day considering the prices and their needs.

The second group have appliances that reacted to the prices in an automated fashion while preserving the owners’ utility. To understand how it worked, imagine a family who wants to have their dishes ready for dinner at 6PM. At 8AM, when they left home to work, they switch on the washing machine and indicate the hour the dishes must be ready. In the case the washing machine needs two hour to complete the work, the machine knows it could start to work at some moment between 8AM and 4PM and it chooses the moment in the time slot with lower price. In the case the energy were cheaper after 4PM, the washing machine started to work at 4PM to assure the dishes were clean and dry at the moment the owners needed them. Other appliances, like the water heater, just chose the time slots with cheaper energy to keep water at desired temperature.

The customers in the first group found the system annoying and they left the experiment. However, those in the second group found the method did not affect their comfort and that their appliances preferred the night to work. Besides this, there was a reduction in the electricity bill: 20% for dishwashers, 10% for washing machines and tumble dryers, and 5% for water heaters.

One of the findings of the project was that customers do not like to be on the lookout of the next day prices. This result is quite surprising if we consider the success of the Opower company, that according to them they were capable of reducing the bill, energy use and CO2 emissions using a customer information system quite similar to the one used by the Belgians with the first group, the one based on getting information the day before to make decisions in advance. But today Opower is in the Oracle realm, maybe because this big company was more interested in the data and knowledge Opower had about how people demand energy than in the possible benefits for environment, electric grid and customers’ wallets. Anyway, it seems the original’s Opower spirit remains alive.

The smart grid will make possible our washing machines will be connected to the power company through Internet soon and it will be in charge of making decisions about when to work in order to reduce our electricity bill. After that, if the washing machine makers were able to design a machine capable of ironing the clothes our happiness would be complete.

What is ‘Blockchain’?

What is ‘Blockchain’?

The “Blockchain” is the technology supporting Bitcoin, the infamous cryptocurrency known for being the first widely used and reportedly used in some criminal activities. Blockchain is also the technology underlying Ethereum, which is also a means to implement smart contracts. There is an increasing interest around Blockchain because it promises disruptive changes in banking, insurance and other sectors narrowly involved in everyday life. In this blog entry, I will try to explain what is Blockchain and how it works. In the next entry, I will present some uses in the energy sector.

Blockchain is an account book, a ledger. It contains the transaction records made between two parties, like “On April 3, John sold 3 potatoes kilos to Anthony and paid 1.05 Euro”. The way Blockchain works avoid any malicious change in the records. This feature is not granted by a supervisor, but is a consequence of the consensus reached by all peers participating in the Blockchain. This has consequences of paramount importance. For instance, when Blockchain is used to implement a payment system, like Bitcoin, it is not needed a bank supervising and facilitating the transaction anymore. Even it would not be necessary to have a currency as we currently have.

The blockchain is a decentralised application running on a peer-to-peer protocol, like the well-known BitTorrent, which implies all the nodes in the Blockchain have connections among them. The ledger is stored in all the nodes, so every node stores a complete copy of it. The last component is a decentralised verification mechanism.

The verification mechanism is the most important part because it is in charge of assuring the integrity of the ledger. It is based on consensus among nodes and there are several ways to implement it. The most popular ones are the proof-of-work and the proof-of-stake.

The proof-of-work is the most common verification mechanism. It is based on solving a problem that requires certain amount of computing effort. In a nutshell, the problem is to find out a code called hash using the block content (a block is a set of recent ledger inputs). The hash is unique for a given block, and two different blocks will always have different hashes. The majority of the nodes must agree in the hash value, and if some of them find a different hash, i.e. if there is no consensus, the transactions in the block are rejected.

Applications based on Blockchain can be classified into three different categories according to their development status. Blockchain 1.0 are the virtual cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether. Blockchain 2.0 are the smart contracts. A smart contract is a contract with the ability to execute by itself the agreements contained in it. This is done with no need for a supervisor who verifies the contract compliance. Finally, Blockchain 3.0 develops smart contract concept further to create decentralised autonomous organisational units that rely on their own laws and operate with a high degree of autonomy.

In my next post I will present some smart contract applications in the field of energy delivery.

The Internet of Things and the electricity bill

The Internet of Things and the electricity bill

Internet of Things (IoT) are becoming common. These are the objects that connect to Internet by themselves to carry out their duties with no human intervention. One possible application that can help us to save money and to reduce greenhouse gasses emissions is the remote control of domestic devices featuring thermostats. These devices are the conditioning air, electric heaters, fridges, heat pumps and heating. While heat pumps are not common in many European countries, gas heating is widespread. Although the latter is not electricity driven, the same ideas can be applied because it relies on a thermostat. The important feature shared by all those devices is that they have thermal inertia, which means there is no significant effect if they are switched off for a reasonable period.

The first step is to connect to Internet the devices. There is technology available in the market to do this, like the Siemens’ Synco Living series or the devices manufactured by Greenwave Systems. This technology enables users to remotely access the aforementioned devices.

The next step is to allow the electricity company to control the thermostats, so they will be able to change the temperature set-point when some conditions are hold. For instance, in the case of the air conditioning, it means they will be able to increase the set-point up to certain threshold or for a certain amount of minutes every hour.  In return for allowing changing set-points, the customer will have discount in his electricity bill.

Dryer connected to a smart switch

We have to consider companies do not participate in this scheme for the love of humankind, but because of the benefits they gain. What the company is really doing is to buy the customer’s flexibility. The flexibility is the energy the customer is willing to save if there is a return. When the company aggregates the flexibility of many clients, they find they do not need to produce or to buy a huge amount of energy which leads to big economic savings, in particular under unforeseen circumstances like some weather events.

But these programs that are profitable both for the companies and the customers have an even more interesting side; they foster the integration of renewable energies in the grid. The problem with renewable energy is that it cannot be scheduled, as it occurs with conventional sources. As a result, we have energy when there is no demand or the demand can concentrate when the wind does not blow. Demand response programs, this is the name for the described scheme, enables companies to use the aggregated customer’s flexibility to reduce energy demand when renewable sources are weak. In this way there is no need to build CO2 emitting reserve power stations, which are very expensive because they are not continuously running.

Demand response programs can be seen as a case of Internet of Things (IoT) and they are not common in Europe, at least among domestic customers, as it occurs in the USA. These programs allow citizens to be directly engaged in the promotion of renewable energies and in the reduction of greenhouse gasses production. They are a kind of everyday life perturbation, and some people could perceive it as an intolerable intromission. However, we have to consider almost all of us have a product called flexibility we can sell to the electricity companies and, at the same time, it is a personal involvement in climate change mitigation.

IoT, farming and market

IoT, farming and market

Agriculture and husbandry are economical activities with high social value in some places around Europe; they have an important share in the economy of many European regions and the European Union devotes a significant part of its annual budget to farming and the related rural world. In spite of this, farmers usually have lower incomes than other citizens in the same social and cultural conditions.

Since the coming of the Enlightenment Age farming has enjoyed technical improvements that increased farming outcomes. During current century, Internet became a widespread technology and the Internet of Things is getting common. Both farming and husbandry will benefit from the Internet of Things. Is about machine communication and it relies on cloud computing and sensor networks. It is mobile, virtual and required reliable and fast data connections. It allows machines and processes to sense the environment and provides the intelligence needed to allow them to optimise by themselves.

Precision farming may be the first application of Internet of Things in farming. The key is to install sensors to gather data from all the farming processes and to make decisions based on data in an automated way. Soil, plants, livestock, machines, weather can be monitored and actions can be taken to reach exploitation targets in an optimal way, as we reported here.

Although IoT can improve farming activity, we must keep in sight the prices farmers are payed depend on the market. Currently in Europe there is a market deregulation and therefore farmer incomes depend on the market whims. In this scenery, to organise the offer could help farmers to preserve their interests. Could IoT help to organise offer?

Imagine a region where all the farms use the IoT in their everyday activities. They use it to efficiently develop their work and they measure all the important parameters that allow knowing their state and performance. Imagine now that all the farms are connected and share the information gathered by the sensors. Finally, assume the network has intelligence.

Besides the farms information, that artificial intelligence receives information about who and where are the ones that potentially would buy farms products, how much the pay, how is production in other competitor regions, what are the forecasts for market and weather. Putting together all that information, that artificial intelligence would manage the farms by suggesting farmers different operations in order to maximise the delivery price. For instance, the artificial intelligence using available information may conclude that the maximum price for a given product could be reached if certain amount of tons is offered to a defined buyer a precise day. Among all the farms in the network, the artificial intelligence would choose those where the product is in the optimal maturation moment and would inform the farmers about the circumstances so they could proceed with harvesting and transport.

A schema like the one proposed would transform farms into things connected to Internet and smart enough to optimise the farming revenues by themselves. And it would be another technical innovation in the row started centuries ago that would improve farmers live.