Our energy future, just like automation, is much closer than you think

There was an article doing the rounds recently on a bricklaying robot and how the future of manual labour is in jeopardy. While the robot itself has been around for a while (there were similar articles on it in June 2015), it does raise the point of just how quickly the world of work will change.

The same question could be asked of our energy future. Every day there are articles on batteries, solar, virtual grids and now pumped hydro, but it’s difficult to sort the timeframes put forward by conservative commentators on one hand to those presented by people trying to sell something now on the other.

The best analogy in looking at how technology can change the world is the medium you’re reading this article through – the internet.
 

Let’s look at the timeline. In 1993 the first real web browser, Mosaic was released to the world, followed soon after by Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Just over 20 years ago, in 1995, Yahoo was founded, followed three years later by Google in 1998. The first iPhone was released 10 years ago in 2007.

In under 25 years we have gone from using bank tellers to transfer money, to using our phones to purchase our preferred coffee from our favourite coffee shop while we’re still on the bus. We’ve moved from portable CD players and minidisks to streaming songs on Spotify. We no longer record shows on our VCRs, we select what we want, when we want it on Netflix. Rather than book a taxi and hope for the best, we track our lift’s progress on Uber. We do our weekly shopping online and even when we go into the store the checkout is automated. There are thousands of similar examples, but the point is that all of this has happened in less than 25 years.

In the world of energy we are poised on a similar step change. The landscape in 25 years will be fundamentally different to what we have now. The rate of change aligns with the rate of change in automation, genetics and the internet.

The first big change is the advent of energy monitoring and control. Most companies still have one or two meters recording their electricity use and little knowledge of where their energy is actually used. Control systems are based on protocols like Modbus (from 1979) and BACnet (1987) that really aren’t designed for our modern, interconnected world. While the makers of these systems have valiantly attempted to retrofit them, we are rapidly moving to using standard internet protocols to control our commercial buildings and industrial sites.

The Internet of Things allows us to monitor the energy usage of each device, from air-conditioning systems to industrial equipment along with thousands of individual pieces of data about the performance of each piece of equipment. Cheap, networked sensors allow us to monitor the temperature and humidity of every room in an office block. This network of monitoring and control is being integrated with batteries and renewable storage. Companies can be smarter about when they use electricity from the grid and make intelligent decisions on whether they reduce their power usage by actions such as increasing air conditioner set points in some areas to shutting down industrial equipment for brief periods.

While many view this future as far off, the technology is here and is evolving rapidly.

So how can companies prepare for this new energy future?

First, break down the barriers between IT departments and the operating and maintenance sides of the business. If the people running SCADA systems are working together with the people running the company’s databases and reporting systems a whole new world of management and control becomes available.

When IT staff are aware of the monitoring requirements of the operations managers, they can ensure that the necessary networks (physical and wireless) are in place to allow devices to communicate. Many companies are now merging their IT (information technology) and OT (operational technology) business areas.

Second, stop considering energy to be an item to be procured like pencils and instead look at how it can be managed company wide. This can be through integration of renewables and batteries, and effective control of equipment by moving to more fluid energy purchasing arrangements (progressive purchasing is a good example of this).

Finally, businesses should lobby the state and federal governments to update the energy market rules to reflect the modern reality. The rules were developed when trading systems had trouble coping with half hour trades and there were a limited number of participants. Now the energy market should be able to deal with minute by minute trading with thousands of participants. Companies should be able to bid into the market with their excess renewable capacity. Conversely, businesses should be able to bid to reduce their energy load during peak demand times.

The companies that plan for this future will be on the front foot in dealing with rapidly rising energy prices and gain better managed, more efficient operations as a spin off benefit. The ones that don’t could be left behind like the Blockbuster video stores of our recent past.

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