Power systems will have to change if we are to achieve the goals set out by the European Green Deal. But while innovation is a much-needed step to reach carbon neutrality, the right approach in the digitalisation strategy must be adopted with a central figure and a watchword in mind: end-users and interoperability
Climate action is at the heart of the European Green Deal. A set of measures has been established to leverage a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by investing in cutting-edge research and innovation. This reduction will only take place by adopting a multidisciplinary strategy that acts on the energy value chain as a whole. How can we achieve this? By increasing the electrification of society. By replacing the conventional resources with renewables. By improving the efficiency of conversion and storage of electricity. By developing new energy vectors, such as green hydrogen for industry and heavy-duty transportation.
The most comprehensive approach to this ambitious goal was designed in 2015 with the Energy Union strategy, which addresses the dimensions that give EU citizens secure, sustainable, competitive, and affordable energy. This is the only way to proceed: placing end-users at the centre of the energy system of the future. This system should be capable of responding seamlessly to their needs, not only based on economics but also on other less tangible relevant factors, such as environmental impact, security and social dynamics.
Human-centricity is key
A profound transformation of the electrical system towards digitalisation needs to occur fast. That will be the only way to reach a level of interaction in which a less predictable behaviour of end-users (mainly due to less passive electrical demand), matches a variable supply from primary renewable energy resources. Digitalisation has already started from the infrastructure side with significant investment in monitoring and control of transmission, namely of distribution grids, towards a successful Smart Grid implementation. The roll-out of smart meters (as sensors) provide clearer visibility of the state of the electrical grid.
A flexible and resilient distribution grid is crucial to foster the implementation of advanced management concepts from both the grid side and the active end-users side. Local energy communities and other innovative businesses that explore the concept of Energy of Proximity are good examples.
To maximise the role of local energy systems, one must promote user interaction through adequate information and communication technologies. In this sense, the digitalisation strategy must focus on users. Several demonstration projects have been implementing user centric management models; the majority takes place at cooperatives and communities that negotiate energy supply contracts globally and optimise the use of local resources.
However, regulation has been a bottleneck for the scale up of this paradigm. It is focused on assuring quality of service and overall system balance, variables that are more difficult to control with these concepts considering current monitoring and control capacity. Clearly, implementing disruptive models, such as peer-to-peer trading between energy users and/or retailers, is a delicate matter since they usually do not consider the physics of the electrical power system.
There is an opportunity to accelerate the role of local energy systems using recent technological advances in AI, blockchain and cloud computing. Such technologies, when combined with a smart grid infrastructure, will leverage the digitalisation of the energy sector and bring citizens to the marketplace via user-driven services.
Despite that, the interaction with end-users has several challenges and barriers that need to be overcome. On one hand, there is still a long way for users to be fully aware of energy sufficiency, i.e., using the energy they actually need. On the other hand, understanding how a variety of different technologies and new business models can be developed and put into operation, guaranteeing interoperability, security and data privacy will be critical to engage end-users.
Interoperability is the watchword
INESC ecosystem has been striving, through different EU funded projects and direct contracts with stakeholders, to design and develop solutions to foster this new step on the EU electrical system evolution. As an example, the H2020 InterConnect Project, a truly interoperable platform of energy and non-energy services, is currently underway. A key aspect is the adoption of co-creation design principles among the different stakeholders, namely system operators, energy retailers, residential and commercial consumers, industrial infrastructures and communities.
This will leverage the future energy system paradigm: digital-based marketplaces will allow prosumers to trade energy and services easily, by generalizing ontology in IoT-based services and standardized digital platforms and protocols. It will also ensure that interests, motivations and needs towards specific technologies are considered. It is worthy of note from lessons of the past years, that one single strategy does not fit all, and to succeed in the EU energy transition goals, multiple approaches must be followed from the scratch.
The future needs to be interoperable, allowing users to change appliances, electric vehicles, retail and other service providers without compromising the one and sole objective of the electrical power system: to fulfil consumers’ needs. In this sense, it is crucial to design cooperative solutions to and with consumers, in a joint effort. Moreover, people should understand and adopt technology, in order to surpass regulatory, economic, social and technological barriers.