Microgrids — The future of energy?

We’re using to much energy. We use it for blenders and dishwashers and cars. We have a global energy problem. One that the leaders of the world are trying to solve on a global scale. And they should. But maybe we can flip the problem and look for a more local approach.

The current (pun intended) way to meter electricity consumption in Europe is by using a spinning disk and a mechanical dial that shows amount of used kWh. During 2016 a lot of these meters will be updated to a new version.

Left the current meter and right the new meter, to be installed during 2016

The new meters doesn‘t have a spinning disk but instead a display. A LED display that does something close to the old version. It shows a number, and that’s it. The new meter uses less energy, which is a nice upgrade considering context, and it does come with more bandwidth for the energy supplier to gather data in terms of how and when, electricity is used. Those numbers might come in handy for the people selling electricity, but for the consumer the value of this update is very limited. You still get just a number and that’s it. According to Kamstrup, the company supplying the new meters, they will be hooked up to the internet, and will be able to deliver more detailed feedback to the consumer on usage. Via text messages in the display. “For a richer engagement with the consumer”

I think we need something more than that. Personally, I feel like a good start is to design something that shows me what I’m using my energy on, and how much. Also something I would actually mount on my wall.

This is my concept. I call it “Heartly”

Heartly is hardware and software. It’s a box that’s mounted on a wall. A box that delivers feedback on how and when you use energy in your home. Heartly can show you a breakdown of the current usage over a given period of time

Based on any metrics you decide, a halo will show you if you are on track. A metric could be to “reduce usage 3% this week” — “Reduce the money we spend on energy by 15%”. Based on a quick glance you always have a sense of your energy consumption.

Heartly gives you a better overview over what is used, where and when. You might think the bathroom light bulb is doing all the damage, when actually your water-pump is using 1347% more energy than the lightbulb. Showing a more detailed breakdown of usage, could be achieved by using smart wall plugs in your outlets, letting the system knowing what outlets run the most amps. Is you want to reduce energy usage, you need to know which battles to pick.

Right now, (in Denmark at least), you get an annual invoice from the energy company. They try to add some information on usage, but in terms of a more ongoing and transparent overview of what you actually spend your money on, it’s not cutting it.

The last time I stayed at a hotel, I marveled at the simple solution, where you need to use your keycard to turn on the lights. That simple trick results in millions of hotel rooms not using power when empty. Would it be inconvenient to have to use a credit card to turn on the lights in your home. Yes. But there’s something I like about the fact that if a consumer would need to pay the bill by creditcard every month, they would get a better feel for how much money they spend on energy, and hence be more inclined to cut down on power consumption.

Heartly has one big “off” switch I often need, when in a hurry or going to bed. Something smart plugs and sensors could assist with. Over time the system should be able to learn some basic use patterns based on how you normally use energy in your home.

This was actually meant to be the end of the piece. A better overview of what you use your energy on…

…Enter Tesla…

With the Tesla Battery, we are now able to store energy locally in our homes. This is a pretty big deal. The Tesla battery might be expensive and not for everybody, but for the sake of this argument, let’s just consider this the beginning of local in-your-home energy storage.

In order to keep things dandy on mother earth, we need to reduce Co2. And we are all part of both the problem and the solution. I see a lot of campaigns nudging you to do something for the greater good of the planet. And there’s an inherent problem in that proposition. While some amazing people spend time in a rubber dinghy circling a oil rig, most of us care about the environment directly around us. As a species we are hardwired to care about the smaller habitat we live in, and nudging a human being to take on the responsibility of the energy consumption of the entire globe, is in many ways a problematic start.

In a study by Small, Loewenstein and Slovic (2007) participants were presented with the opportunity to donate $5 to save the children. When presented with an identified child to support, versus a donation to an organisation, the amount of donations doubled. A third group was presented with a combination of the statistics outlining the problem and the identified child. This reduced the amount of donations. The parallel being, that in order to tackle the big problem, we have to start small. Local. We have to find an approach that makes the problem tangible in an everyday context.

Island of Samsoe off the coast of Denmark

This is Samsø. A small island in Denmark off the cost of Jutland. I spent many summers here as a kid. Swimming, exploring the wilderness on a bike and buying ice-cream at the very local grocery store. Samsø potatoes are a national treasure and the price tag for a bag from the first batch, rivals that of saffron and iPhones.

Samsø is 100% running on renewable energy. A completely Co2 neutral island. They accomplish this by using windmills and solar panels. But mainly they do it, by having a shared vision for the future. A key factor being the physical proximity of the people involved. On an island this size everybody knows everybody (Maybe not directly, but you get the point… 1 degree of bacon)

So how does this scale ? My best answer is that it doesn’t. We can’t just “Samsø” the entire world. Our minds cant handle the scope and scale. Presented with the weight of the global Co2 issues, we suddenly feel insignificant. On Samsø, I imagine, you feel like part of the solution.

So the solution is to keep it local.

With a battery and solar panels, you are able to store free energy from the sun. That’s nice. You are now able to use that energy in a more clever way. During the day, when the sun is shining, a lot of us is at work. When we return home and start using utilities etc, the sun is not shining any more.

With the battery we can now store the sun shine during the day, and spend that “free” energy over night, washing our clothes and charging our car.

But at some point during the day, with a fully charged battery, I anticipate that we won’t be needing all the “free” energy we save.

Let’s say that we have a street with 20 houses. During the weekend, 5 of these houses might be vacant, because the families have gone camping etc. The solar panels will still run, and the energy will still be stored. But at some point, there’s going to be to much energy. More than what can be stored. We could push that energy back into the grid and make a buck.

Or…

Imagine those 20 houses making a vow, that as a street, they push to reduce the Co2 emission by 25%. Maybe they use the money saved on a new swing for the local park. Maybe they get the kids involved.

They do this by being more aware about what they use. They use Heartly to monitor and adjust. They get smarter.

And they share what they don’t need.

This is local. Sharing energy becomes a social currency and a shared vision. Imagine not just one street doing this, but all the streets.

What if the sharing economy was just that — an economy of sharing!

I know that what I made a merely pixels on a screen and the solution to the energy problem is not that simple to solve. But sometimes an idea is worth something.

For comments and concerns I’m right here on Twitter Aweiland

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