Digital transformation

Local grids: distribution of solar energy

July 12, 2021 - 4 minutes reading time
Article by Robert Koot & Anp Expert Support

The explosively growing number of solar panels in urban areas means that electricity generated cannot always be returned to the grid – a dark cloud over the costly investments of homeowners and businesses. In other places there is an energy shortage. A local approach to power distribution via 'local grids' can offer a solution.

To live as sustainably as possible, more and more Dutch people are having solar panels installed on their roofs. In view of the climate, this seems an extremely positive development, but it is also a development that creates a new problem: generated electricity cannot always be fed back to the power grid. Leen Blom, CTO Public Sector Solutions at Centric, talked about this with an employee of power grid operator Stedin.

“In urban areas, we are seeing an enormous increase in the number of houses with solar panels on the roof,” explains Blom. “Stedin told me that in some cases they even have to stop the return of generated solar energy. This issue has a broad impact, on citizens as well as companies and other organizations.” This triggered him: how will people react when they hear that they cannot recoup their investment in solar panels?

How will people react upon hearing that they cannot recoup their investment in solar panels?

‐ Leen Blom

Peaks in power generation

This revelation prompted Centric to enter into discussions with sister companies Strukton and Antea Group in order to find a solution that transcends disciplines. The three organizations pitched their idea to the municipality of Rotterdam, among others. The response was so enthusiastic that follow-up sessions were immediately scheduled. The municipality recognizes this looming problem and is pleased that market parties are coming up with solutions.

Patrick van Geffen, program manager at Strukton Worksphere, is one of the people looking for such a solution. “We are increasingly driving electrically, so in about ten years you would prefer a charging station at every parking spot. And as part of the energy transition, office buildings must be climate neutral by 2050, but you still need the energy to heat and light the building. In addition, some areas have a shortage of electricity, while elsewhere there is a surplus. It is therefore important to be able to properly distribute peaks in power generation. A local approach is more suitable for this than a central power grid.”

Local grids more suitable for local power distribution

The solution of Centric, Strukton and Antea Group is the introduction of so-called local grids: local networks in which both the supply and demand of energy are regulated. “You want to manage locally and coordinate things smartly,” explains Van Geffen. “So that you can use the heat that you generate in an office building, for example, in the football canteen next door. This prevents energy from having to be shuffled back and forth across the entire country – and even beyond. This is also efficient for energy companies, because the settlement via local grids relieves their administration.”

Blom continues: “How nice would it be if you had all kinds of parties – companies, a number of homeowners, public transport – that are physically close to each other and work together in the supply and demand of energy. In this way you move from a central energy source to smaller, decentralized providers. The mutual settlement of these can easily be done via a local blockchain.”

‘The initiative must come from the business community’

According to Jesse Stammers, business development manager at engineering company Antea Group, the challenges of local grids are not so much in the technical field, but more in the field of organization. “These kinds of tasks are so big, you can’t do it alone. You are in a complex field with all kinds of stakeholders and then you have to organize it together.”

Van Geffen recognizes this: “We spoke with a number of potential buyers of the idea, such as Stedin, the municipality of Rotterdam and transport company RET. But then you see, for example, that the rail world is completely different from the power supply infrastructure. In addition to finding technical solutions with which you try to connect those systems, you are also linking legislation in a political environment. This is a huge challenge, but together our companies have the technical and organizational knowledge needed for such large infrastructure projects.”

The knowledge of Centric, Strukton and Antea Group in the field of “smart cities” complement each other well, Blom also believes. “When it comes to connecting the power grids, Strukton knows all about it. And when it comes to what it really looks like in the outside world, the experience of the engineering firm Antea Group is very valuable. Centric, on the other hand, has a lot of experience with regulations in the field of the living environment and supporting software for governments. Municipalities and energy companies are not equipped for this, the initiative for setting up local grids must come from the business community.”

The certainty that generated electricity is actually purchased

Despite all these organizational challenges, the most important element for this plan is already there, according to Blom: the will to become more sustainable. “You can already see it with citizens, with the large number of solar panels that are being installed. But then it cannot be the case that you are punished because your generated power cannot be delivered to the grid. That is why we want to introduce local grids, so that all participants gain certainty through mutual agreements.”

Moreover, local grids provide ownership, continues Blom. “Look at the construction of windmills. Initially, no one wants such a thing in their backyard. But when you receive the power from a windmill in your area directly, people will accept it much faster. The same applies to local grids in cities. You think: this is my grid, and I’m also reaping the benefits myself.”

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