Uber, Airbnb, Craigslist, Ebay. The so-called “sharing economy” is booming, with organizations of all flavors enabling people to digitally access huge marketplaces normally only available to the corporates of yesterday. It’s all very well flogging your underused car, spare room or set of skis, but what about things you have less control over such as, say, your energy? Imagine being able to produce, store and manage your own energy and then sell the surplus back to the grid — maybe your solar panels gather extra on a particularly sunny day. Even better, imagine you could do all of this for an entire city.
This world is what Siemens’ Andreas Schuster, and his work as Head of Research for Aspern Smart City Research, is working towards — a brand new, smart, energy efficient, self-sustaining hub, not far outside Vienna.
The problem with energy is that there are several touchpoints to connect up — the wind turbines to the transportation cables, to the infinitely huge array of devices to power. And when it comes to renewable energy, there’s huge intermittency issues — solar panels gather energy during the day, but most people use their electricity in the evening when the sun has gone down — so storing renewable energy is crucial. Then there’s all the people: the politicians and energy companies, technology manufacturers and data analysts — not to mention you, the energy consumer yourself.
Aspern Smart City Research (ASCR) is set up as a collaboration between the City of Vienna; a technology company, Siemens; an energy provider, Wien Energie; and a network operator, Wiener Netze. Andreas’ role is to co-ordinate the communication between these parties and oversee the new energy areas to explore for this immense project. Despite working for Siemens, his role is to act as a conduit between all four organizations. “It’s important to have a view of everything — not to be knee deep in every detail — but to have an overlook of every part, from building great computer systems to co-ordinating many different fields like hardware technology and marketing, and then security and safety. Law is an important aspect in Smart City initiatives, and the views of lawyers are different from those of the technicians.”
By connecting up the various parties, though, Andreas and ASCR are well on the way to creating a truly decentralized system for a much fairer, more sustainable and highly optimized world of energy. The new city has been designed smart from the ground up: from sensors monitoring energy usage to predict future need and meters to track how much energy is in the system to work out what should be sent for storage and what should be consumed, to solar panels on the roofs of the buildings and advanced batteries installed all around the city. The beauty of this modern city means instead of simply connecting a phone to a charger to a power point to the energy flow in your house alone, ASCR connects house to house, school to shop, solar panel to smart meter, battery to weather data and phone charger to energy flow. With the city now being treated as one big energy consumer, as opposed to a collection of unique buildings and people, energy is suddenly a shared resource which can be moved around, shared, stored and allocated much more efficiently.
Andreas’ goals with his research don’t just stop with these current activities. “In this test bed we can test prototypes easily and also under real conditions”, he explains. With apparent global consensus that the move to renewables is the best long-term solution both from an economic and environmental perspective, what governments need is an optimized route to getting their cities modernized. “I hope the new smart buildings and smart grids make it easier to understand and to build up in other systems.” Andreas and the ASCR team are, in effect, doing the difficult job of proving the model to everyone else around the planet.
It would be easy to attribute the recent advances in renewables to the climate change conversation, but for Andreas there are wider shifts in society — towards more self-sustaining living — that is truly driving innovation in energy. “The trend and the mindset for people is ‘to have my own energy’ — this is not only an environmental question, it’s also an economical question and an independence question.” Andreas explained that with governments in Europe relying on far away nations such as Saudi Arabia and Russia for their energy supply, this is not just an individualistic trend, but rather one of local and open communities. The growth in blockchain technology and sharing economy solutions echoes this desire to break free from costs we cannot understand, environments we cannot control, using software we cannot edit.
ASCR is proving that a world powered by renewables is not such a complex idea. With the technology behind data analysis, sensors and machine-to-machine communication now at a point where large-scale systems such as energy can be truly smart, the obstacles in the way of the green revolution are starting to be knocked aside. Energy won’t be shared freely, but the profitable sharing economy has certainly paved the way for a kinder, fairer, much more sensible use of our planet’s precious resources.
But even with the technology reaching the point of effective use, as Andreas pointed out — maybe the current trend of autonomy and making the most of what you have is what’s truly encouraging the world to embrace this new world of energy.
After all — waste not, want not.
Andreas is a Future Maker — one of the 372,000 talented people working with us to shape the future.