100% Renewables in a virtual power plant

In May this year I had the chance to meet with Dave Saunders, the founder of the Bristol Power Cooperative.
I contacted him because I was looking for a project I could work for in my Masters. When I had found a place to work in Bath, we decided to meet anyways and it was the perfect opportunity to get to know his ideas while he was giving me a free tour to Bristol. Thanks again, Dave!

While walking along the canal Dave explained me his vision of Bristol (or rather, the people of Bristol) becoming their own energy supplier with the business model of a cooperative. There was a moment when we passed a ship fueled with hydrogen (the project I was working on at the time was on hydrogen production). The moment stuck in my head because I remember Dave saying the reason he was skeptical about hydrogen was that people will stay dependent of large companies and big money.
This is where I’m getting back to the title of today’s post. I want to discuss what might be the better, or what might be the more likely solution: big energy suppliers (we have right now) vs. small independent energy producers? Centralized vs. decentralized energy production?

What do we want?

What do we want might be a good question as a starting point. We obviously need energy, and what I’m talking about is heat and electricity. We also want to keep our nice planet remain a planet we can live on and make a living, and preferably, we want it to stay this way for our children and theirs.
So we need to find efficient and clean ways to supply this energy, assuming that conventional energy production might be able to meet the energy demand, but not comply with anything else of the above.

Assuming? The first point I want to make is that there is no „if“. There is no discussion about if human caused emissions support climate change or not, and there never can be. Why? Because it doesn’t matter at all. Climate is changing all the time. Climate on earth has been in a state where no live can exist for longer that it has been in a state where anything can live, and even shorter it has been a climate where we can survive.
Earth with it’s current climate is the only planet we have we can live on.
So, as long as this is true and we accept that clean energy can supply to the maintenance of this state, the answer to the question if we need to get to a  100% clean is a loud and infinite: YES!

Ho do we do it?

Now that we know what we want (I know what I want…), the question is how to get there, and how to get there as quick a possible and as sustainable as possible.
The conventional energy system is big. Big power plants generate huge amounts of electricity and heat and the produce a lot of emissions, waste and so on…They are at the thick end of the transmission system and they can only run if the produced electricity is consumed continuously.

With renewable energy the system is forced to change but so far it is still changing in it’s conventional shape. The core characteristics of most renewable energy sources are that they produce small amounts of electricity or heat. But there are loads of them, and they are usually sited at the thin end (the consumers end) of the transmission system.

If you try to picture this, it becomes clear that to have both big conventional producers and small renewable producers isn’t very likely to work.

With renewables, energy production becomes decentralized. This gives many villages or regions the option to supply themselves with all the energy they need so they become independent from the big energy suppliers who in return lose their business model. On the other hand, it also means big investments and risks for these independent region.
So far, none of these regions are really independent. They are in the balance of energy production and consumption, but they are all still connected to the main transmission grid and can rely on using conventional electricity when there’s not enough wind or sun.

I’m not promoting energy independent regions to cut their grid connection. But what about this:

A virtual power plant

The large energy suppliers are huge companies with employees all over the countries they supply. They have years of experience of how to manage energy production and supply and how to maintain a grid stability. They have loads of money and the infrastructure to manage nationwide projects.

In a completely renewable supplied country, they could handle each „independent region“ as a virtual power plant. At first, all electricity would be produced to be consumed locally. But when there is overproduction, the grid operators would have the options to transmit excess electricity to other regions if their production is not sufficient.

Unneeded electricity could be used to produce hydrogen and synthesize methane, so it could be stored in the gas grid and be used as electricity or heat again, when needed.

I believe that a system like this is the only way of getting to have 100% renewables working. However, I don’t think that the big companies are guaranteed to have their share in this. There are already regions and villages trying to become their own virtual power plant. I do believe though, that with the big suppliers and grid operators, 100% could be reached so much faster.
And I don’t think that big companies are evil. It’s just a matter of politics to make the right rules so that these big companies serve those they were founded to serve:
The people who have the need for electricity and heat to live confortably.

What do you think?

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