Greater energy consumption accelerates climate change but climate change also accelerates energy consumption. That’s according to a recent paper by Bas J. van Ruijven, Enrica De Cian, and Ian Sue Wing, that suggests southern regions of the US, China, and Europe, will see an additional 25% energy consumption due to climate change alone. That’s 25% on top of energy demand increases from population growth, industrial expansion, and other socio-economic factors.
“Future energy demand is likely to increase due to climate change, but the magnitude depends on many interacting sources of uncertainty,” begins the paper - Amplification of Future Energy Demand Growth due to Climate Change - published in Nature Journal. “Energy use is one of the human systems most directly exposed to changes in the climate. Rising ambient temperatures are expected to increase hot season cooling demand and could decrease cold season heating demand across multiple economic sectors,” it concludes across 210 realizations of socioeconomic and climate scenarios.
Energy consumption amplifies climate change which amplifies energy consumption in a potentially catastrophic spiral. This excludes energy generated from renewable sources, of course, which should already be the top energy priority. Renewable energy may come from many different sources but two of the most popular, solar and wind, are intermittent, only generating power when the sun is shining or the wind blowing. This would limit the potential of these renewables but for energy storage, which has developed to make a clean energy world technologically viable.
Attacking the problem from two sides, we are also reducing consumption by increasing the efficiency of the worst energy offenders. Buildings account for approximately 40% of total energy consumption, meaning huge amounts of energy are continuously flowing in and out of our buildings to feed our equipment and appliances. That flow of energy can be leveraged by smart electric appliances to smooth out energy consumption like a battery. Take cooling, for example, where thermal energy is stored as the difference to ambient temperature.
“As cooling demand rises, we have the opportunity to re-imagine all of our buildings as a vast fleet of thermal batteries,” says Sonia Aggarwal, Vice President of Energy Innovation and Director of America’s Power Plan. “Refrigerators, freezers, and whole buildings can be pre-cooled to ride through the hottest parts of the day, or electric water heaters can turn on at intelligent times – effectively storing electricity in thermal energy and thus providing a steady ballast for the electric grid's shorter variations.”
The energy consumption of cooling technologies is critical in the ‘energy consumption-climate change spiral’. Making cooling more efficient through smart technology is a positive step but that smart technology, if widespread and interconnected with the smart grid, can also play a larger role in balancing regional and national power systems. Aggarwal advocates for better policy to encourage this kind of technology through building energy and electrification codes. She suggests the industrialized world must lead the way in this potentially disruptive energy reform.
“The U.S. and other industrialized economies need to lead the way on smart buildings, smart cooling, and smart appliances,” Aggarwal wrote in an article on Forbes. “But as energy use for cooling surges in China, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere, every country will need to deliver this crucial service while maintaining power grid reliability and avoiding new, polluting power plants. If we invest in innovation and deploy these smart appliances now, buildings can balance the grid, not strain it.”
The idea of device filled smart buildings as a way to smooth out energy demand is not all that new. Appliances are part of the virtual power plant (VPP) concept, where the entire building becomes a fundamental energy generating, consuming, storing, and balancing element of the grid. High-profile VPP projects have sprung up across the industrialized world, from New York to Japan, and more recently on a large-scale in Australia, with the help of Tesla.
“Supply and demand resources can work together rather than against each other in the modern energy system. New technologies and greater intelligence are redefining the supply – demand relationship; increasing efficiency, enabling distributed generation and reducing overall consumption. At the forefront of this evolution is the VPP,” we wrote in an article entitled: Virtual Power Plants: Our Energy Future is Distributed, Efficient and Intelligent.
Among the leaders in VPP technology is German energy storage company, Sonnen, acquired by Shell in February this year. Sonnen has installed over 40,000 batteries worldwide, it launched its VPP platform - SonnenCommunity - back in 2015 to allow subscribers to ‘share’ their power with each other via the grid, and have continued to innovate since the acquisition.
Their latest project, announced last week, appears to be a demonstration of how VPPs can work within our current power infrastructure. The project is made up of a 600-apartment complex in Herriman, Utah, a state where 1.8 million people were affected by 346 power outages between 2010 and 2017. With the first residents of Soleil Lofts set to move in this month, Sonnen is promising to keep the lights on through solar generation and energy storage.
While distributed solar + storage has been touted as the future of energy, transitioning to a point where our aging grids can support millions of buildings producing, storing, and consuming energy in a highly-complex energy patchwork is a challenge. Hence the VPP, which aggregates solar + storage installations to create an entity that is simpler for current grid infrastructure to understand and interact with.
“A VPP is easier for a utility to deal with than individual solar panels because a VPP operates as one asset rather than several individual homes. If too much energy is produced from the solar panels, it can simply be stored in residents’ batteries. And because the energy from the solar panels is stored locally, the utilities can draw from batteries during peak hours,” Christoph Ostermann, Sonnen CEO, explains.
This simple and compelling solution to increasing the use of environmentally-friendly renewable energy has been around for some time but is yet to make a significant impact on the energy system. Major energy storage players, like Sonnen and Tesla, appear to be pushing solar + storage while limiting VPPs to one-off, demonstration-style projects. “Personally, I thought this was always the model that Tesla with SolarCity was going at, but they just haven’t been particularly good in executing it,” Gerbrand Ceder, materials science and engineering professor at UC Berkeley, tells The Verge.
While the strategies behind VPP offerings may not have been perfect, the industry is operating in an uphill regulatory environment where profit is far from a certainty. In the US, each state and sometimes each utility has the power to draw up its own regulations for VPP firms to abide by. “If the utility says, ‘No, the network belongs to us, and we are not up for your idea,’ then it won’t work,” says Ostermann.
Furthermore, the solar incentives in place in many states essentially provide free power from the grid to households that connect their rooftop solar to the grid. Meaning each household powers the grid during the day but consumes at night, with no incentive to store and use the power they generate.
“The customer is basically using the grid as a virtual battery, and probably saving more money from the production of their solar facility than it’s really worth,” says Ryan Hledik, principal at energy research consultancy Brattle Group. “That policy has prevented solar plus storage from becoming very common for residential customers in the US. They don’t need to consume the energy from the solar panel on-site in order to avoid the full retail rate.”
Through efficiency, connected smart devices, intelligent cooling systems, solar + storage, and VPP complexes, we have the technology to create a cleaner energy system that could trigger an era of energy abundance. However, largely down to the challenges, failures, and biases of prominent energy policy, we instead stare at the spiral of increasing energy demands to cool a warming planet. We need renewable energy to mitigate climate change and to survive it.