Key to electric grid stability may be in every home

Fri, 2015-04-17 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

While the switch to renewable sources of power, like solar, has great environmental benefits, they are more prone to fluctuations, which makes it more difficult to manage the overall electrical grid. A pilot project in Germany, however, may have found an answer – one that will be in every home.

The idea is that as more homeowners generate at least some of their own energy, by installing solar panels, for example, they can also help stabilize the overall power grid when they have extra energy and the grid is running short. Caterva, a subsidiary of Council Associate Partner Siemens, is already testing the concept in Germany.

Homes that provide power on-demand
The pilot project is an advanced example of decentralized power generation. It’s not simply a matter homes supplying power to the grid as they generate excess. Each home also stores excess energy, supplying it only when the power grid needs it.

In addition to the solar panels, participants also install a bank of lithium-ion batteries and networking equipment in their homes. Any power the home generates that isn’t used is stored in batteries. The homes can draw off that battery power to reduce their reliance on the grid. And if the grid needs it, but they don’t, their batteries can send power to the grid.

All the homes in the pilot are networked. If the grid needs power, it sends out a signal over a wireless network. Homes that have stored extra can respond automatically.

Large potential impact
So far, the commitment is no small measure. The rack of batteries and networking equipment measures nearly six feet tall ­-– enough to fill a closet. But if enough people take part, the impact on the grid –- and the environment –- could be substantial.

Currently, when power grids are running short, operators have to rapidly fire up short-term generators that consume fuel and also generate pollution. The idea is that if enough homes take part, utilities can make up for more of those shortages without firing up the auxiliary generators at all.

Participants pay a rental fee for the equipment, but they should more than make their money back through the savings on their power bill. Despite what seems like a hefty fee -- around €4,000 over the course of the pilot –- it immediately attracted more than two dozen volunteers. More signed up shortly afterward.

Germany is a good proving ground
Household power generation is already big in Germany. More than a million households have already installed solar panels –- one of the highest rates of adoption in the world.

While participants seem glad for the opportunity to help stabilize the grid and save money on their power bills, the ability to store their own power may be a bigger draw.

“I hope that I will one day have enough energy for my household even if there is a widespread power outage,” said Andreas Seubert, who’s taking part in the pilot. “I would even be satisfied if I had enough energy to watch an important soccer game on TV.”

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Kevin Ebi is a staff writer and social media coordinator for the Council. Follow @smartccouncil on Twitter.

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