Here comes the sun… IBM and solar forecasting

Concentrating solar power array

For decades now electricity grids have been architected in the same way with large centralised generation facilities pumping out electricity to large numbers of distributed consumers. Generation has been controlled, and predictable. This model is breaking down fast.

In the last decade we have seen a massive upsurge in the amount of renewable generation making its way onto the grid. Most of this new renewable generation is coming from wind and solar. Just last year (2013), almost a third of all newly added electricity generation in the US came from solar. That’s an unprecedented number which points to a rapid move away from the old order.

This raises big challenges for the grid operators and utilities. Now they are moving to a situation where generation is variable and not very predictable. And demand is also variable and only somewhat predictable. In a situation where supply and demand are both variable, grid stability can be an issue.

To counter this, a number of strategies are being looked at including demand response (managing the demand so it more closely mirrors the supply), storage (where excess generation is stored as heat, or potential energy, and released once generation drops and/or demand increases), and better forecasting of the generation from variable suppliers.

Some of the more successful work being done on forecasting generation from renewables is being undertaken by Dr Hendrik Hamann at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center, in New York. Specifically Dr Hamann is looking at improving the accuracy of forecasting solar power generation. Solar is extremely complex to forecast because factors such as cloud cover, cloud opacity and wind have to be taken into account.
IBM Solar Forecaster
Dr Hamann uses a deep machine learning approach to tackle the many petabytes of big data generated by satellite images, ground observations, and solar databases. The results have been enviable apparently. According to Dr. Hamann, solar forecast accuracy using this approach is 50% more accurate than the next best forecasting model. And the same approach can be used to predict rainfall, surface temperature, and wind. In the case of wind, the forecast accuracy is 35% better than the next best model.

This is still very much a research project so there is no timeline yet on when (or even if) this will become a product, but if it does, I can see it being an extremely valuable tool for solar farm operators (to avoid fines for over-production, for example), for utilities to plan power purchases, and for grid management companies for grid stability purposes.

The fact that it is a cloud delivered (pun intended, sorry) solution would mean that if IBM brings it to market it will have a reduced cost and time to delivery, bringing it potentially within reach of smaller operators. And with the increase in the number of solar operators (140,000 individual solar installations in the U.S. in 2013) on the grid, highly accurate forecasting is becoming more important by the day.


It is surprisingly easy to leave yourself open to claims of Greenwashing!

Spinning wind power

Photo credit Doxi

Companies need to take a lot of care when making Green claims. The whole Green energy space is massively complex and it is surprisingly easy to leave yourself open to claims of Greenwashing.

What do I mean?

Well, take the Irish energy sector, for example. Anyone who generates electricity in Ireland, which is to be distributed on the grid, is required to sell that power into the wholesale pool – the Single Energy Market (SEM).

Then any retailer who wishes to sell that power to businesses or residential customers, buys the electricity from the pool and sells to their customer base.

Now if you are grid connected in Ireland for your electricity supply (as most organisations are) you get your power from this pool.

Can you see where I am going with this?

Most electricity companies in Ireland do generation as well as retail. Some of them have a significant portfolio of renewable resources (chiefly wind). However, because of the structure of the market, they can’t sell this power directly to consumers, it has to go to the SEM pool first.

When the electricity retailers sell electricity, they have to purchase it from the SEM pool to sell to their customers. Because all electricity sold in Ireland comes from the same SEM pool, everyone has the same percentage of renewables in their supply (unless they have a private supply).

What this means in effect is that you can’t selectively buy renewable electricity in Ireland.

If you see companies saying that their Irish operations are “running on almost 90 percent wind power”, for example, they are either ill-informed, or they are Greenwashing.

If you can’t selectively purchase renewable electricity, what can you do to reduce the carbon footprint of your energy consumption?

Well, the best thing to do then would be to move your loads to times when the percentage of renewable sources in the pool is highest! Any company committing to doing that would be making a bona fide Green statement.


Spain gets 53% of its energy from wind!

Record Spanish Wind Energy

Ok, not all the time, but last weekend at 5:50am on Sunday morning (8th Nov) Spain set a new record, hitting 53.7% of its energy requirements being supplied by wind energy.

As you can see from the graph above, the amount of electricity being supplied by wind, the light green portion of the graph, doesn’t go below 30% at any point in the 24 hours and is closer to between 40-50% for most of the time!

These are figures the world’s most ambitious countries are targeting hitting by 2020, at the earliest!

Notice also on the graph that the contribution from coal (the red band) during this period is in the low single digits, never rising above 6.4%.

And finally notice also that for a lot of the period significant amounts of generation is below the 0MW line – this occurs when the electricity is being either stored using pumped hydro storage, or being exported for sale on the international markets.

The Guardian reporting on this quoted Jos? Donoso, head of the Spanish Wind Energy Association

“We think that we can keep growing and go from the present 17GW megawatts to reach 40GW in 2020,” he told El Pa??s newspaper.

Windfarms have this month outperformed other forms of electricity generation in Spain, beating gas into second place and producing 80% more than the country’s nuclear plants.

Experts estimate that by the end of the year, Spain will have provided a quarter of its energy needs with renewables, with wind leading the way, followed by hydroelectric power and solar energy.

The graph above is taken from the site of the Spanish grid operator Red Electrica de Espa?a (REE).

The REE website has highly detailed and extremely interactive infographics produced using Adobe’s Flex software:
Real-time (and historic) demand, along with generation structure and CO2 emissions
Real-time (and historic) structure of electricity generation (the graph above is taken from this page) and
Demand curves over intervals of time


Reflections on Logica’s analyst day

Logica Portugal

I attended a Logica Analyst briefing earlier this week in Logica’s recently opened International Utilities Competence Center (pictured above).

The days was chock full of talks from both Logica staff and also from João Torres, President & CEO EDP Distribuição – the Portuguese DSO, and a Logica customer.

Most of the talks were very interesting but two that stood out for me were the ones given by João Torres where he discussed EDP’s smart grid project, called InovGrid and the demo of RMS (Renewables Management System) by Jose Antunes and Rita Burnay. RMS is Logica’s software for managing remote windfarms.

In discussing InovGrid João explained that despite the costs of rolling out a smart grid, EDP felt that the benefits outweighed the costs. The main benefits João saw from smart grids were:

  • increase intelligence, supervision and control of the network
  • improve the efficiency and quality of the electricity supply
  • facilitate the maximising the amount of micro and distributed generation on the grid
  • enable smart metering and smart energy management

InovGrid is one of the most advanced smart grid projects in Europe. EDP now has 3,000 micro-generators on its grid and expects to have 200,000 smart meters installed by the end of 2010.

João was extremely open during his presentation. When asked which communication protocol was best for a smart grid, he said he felt PLC was best but he admitted that it had issues. EDP, he said, have a team assessing protocols and that a lot of the details are still to be decided.

Jose Antunes and Rita Burnay gave a demonstration of Logica’s windfarm management software RMS. The software is designed to manage large numbers of remote wind turbines and allows for quick and easy drill down on information. In the demo, we were shown RMS’s live feed from over 2,000 wind turbines all over the Iberian peninsula. The software collects and stores 300-400 data points from each turbine in realtime simultaneously.

As Jose said, wind turbines typically cost in the order of €1m per MW so one of the main functions of RMS is to minimise downtime of turbines. However, because it also stores all the historical data for turbines, it is able to plot performance of each turbine against the manufacturers SLA’s. I can see this being a popular screen!

Jose also told us that Logica are taking over the management of all of EDP’s wind turbines in Europe and the America’s. This will mean they will increase the current portfolio they are managing from 2GW to 10GW (though I don’t imagine all 10GW will be under one instance of RMS!

Logica’s Chris Beard gave a fascinating talk on a new Logica offering called Smart Office but I’ll come back to that in a separate post.


Renewable energy supply and demand

Supply and demand

Photo credit Milton CJ

I ReTweeted a couple of posts yesterday from HP’s Ed Gemmell. The posts from Ed were some data about HP’s use of renewable energy in various EU countries. The retweets were:

  • RT @EdGemmell: HP Ireland running on 50% wind power saving 27,000 tonnes CO2
  • RT @EdGemmell: HP in Italy has been running on 100% hydro since Jan09 saving 15,000 CO2 PA
  • RT @EdGemmell: HP in UK has been running on 100% hydro since Feb09 saving 46,000 tonnes CO2 PA and
  • RT @EdGemmell: HP in Germany has been running on 100% hydro since Jan09 saving 37,000 tonnes CO2 per year

Some nice data there and kudos to HP.

Another Twitter user, Thomas Bjelkman replied very quickly with the following response:

@TomRaftery Re HP and hydropower. If the energy mix in the market is the same then the CO2 has only moved from one customer to another.

And, to an extent he is correct. If suppliers in a market generate 200gWh for example, 50% of which is from renewables then you have 100gWh of renewable energy to go around. One co. preferentially buying 10gWh means by definition that there is less renewable energy (100gWh – 10gWh = 90gWh) to go around for others.

However, the flipside is that if companies are preferentially purchasing/looking to purchase renewable energy, this increases demand in the market. And an increased demand signal invariably leads to an increased supply (as suppliers see more demand, it makes sense to invest in more renewable generation to meet the demand).

So, companies who favour renewable energy (and especially if they publish targets to increase the amount of renewables they are purchasing) are de facto helping to increase the penetration of green power on the grid.

More of it, I say.


The financial markets might be in trouble but renewables are seeing boom times!

renewable energy

Photo Credit pseudorlaya

A couple of interesting announcements were made in Ireland in the last week.

On the 8th of Oct., Eirgrid, the Irish grid operator launched their Grid25 strategy (pdf warning). In the strategy document they announced they are spending €4 billion reinforcing the Irish distribution grid in the expectation of a 60% rise in electricity usage.

The Irish Environment Minister, John Gormley in his Carbon Budget announced that the Irish government is going to target that 40% of electricity consumed in Ireland would be from renewable sources by 2020. This is an increase over the previously stated, already ambitious target, of 33% from renewables.

Ireland had an average electrical demand of 3.2GW in 2007. A 60% increase means an average consumption of 5GW by 2025 and an average of 4.5GW in 2020. This is the date the government has set as its target of 40% from renewables.

40% of 4.5GW means that Ireland will average 1.8GW from renewables in 2020. Assuming that this will come from wind (there is no other viable renewable energy source in Ireland), this will require 5.4GW of installed wind capacity.

Ireland currently has 1GW of installed wind capacity so to hit the target it needs 4.4GW of wind farms to be built.

That’s 366MW per annum or just over 1MW every day until 2020! A 1MW wind turbine would be a significant structure costing in excess of €1m.

So the Irish government has set as a target the sourcing of 1MW extra from wind energy every day for the next 12 years?

I also spotted today that StrategyEye in their new quarterly report are reporting that investment in the Cleantech sector is up 50% this quarter, compared to the first quarter of 2008.

The financial markets might be in trouble but renewables are definitely seeing boom times!


Large Hadron Collider? Our priorities are way off!

Photo Credit Image Editor

While it is exciting to watch the stories breaking today about the successful startup of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, I have to wonder about the price tag.

The total cost of the LHC is estimated at between €3.2 to €6.4 billion and while that is a wide margin, even if it is closer to the €3.2 billion mark that is still a huge amount of money to spend trying to confirm “the predictions and missing links in the Standard Model of physics”. And that is just the financial cost – the amount of CO2 put into the atmosphere by its build and operation must be staggering.

I would far prefer to see all this money and effort being channelled into renewable research. Imagine how much more advanced wind, solar and wave/tidal energies could be now if scientists had €4b of research grants to work with.

I’m a scientist by training and I don’t for a second underestimate the benefits to mankind of being able to explain how elementary particles acquire properties such as mass but I do think that with our polar ice caps melting and small island nations becoming submerged, our priorities on this one are a little mixed up.


New, radically more efficient wind turbines

Traditional wind farm
Photo Credit fieldsbh

The traditional look of windfarms, like the one above, could be changing if an article I read on recently is anything to go by. The piece was about a new type of wind turbine from a company called FloDesign.

The devices have:

  • -shorter sturdier rotors so the turbines can be placed closer together. This also vastly eases the problems associated with transporting normal blades
  • -smaller blades which also means that the turbines can continue operating at higher wind speeds long after existing wind turbines would have to shut down
  • -a fin which points it into the wind, negating the need for a motor to turn it and thus making it easier to maintain and more efficient and
  • -a cowled prop, not unlike jet engines, which generates vortices. These vortices magnify the energy from the wind allowing them to capture 3-4 times more energy than traditional wind turbines.

Small wonder then that they have been winning prizes all over the place and, according to the article, attracting the attention of pre-eminent VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

For more check out this fascinating video put together by the company:


Bring On The Renewables Bubble

Power Lines
Photo Credit chefranden

I was talking to Tom last night, and it struck me that a bubble won’t be all bad. There are a couple of reasons why. First off, unlike the last time a green bubble popped when oil prices collapsed in the 1980s, this time around we have China and India to sustain demand, and oil prices.

So why would a bubble be good? For one, we need the inward investment to create an infrastructure capable of serious lobbying, to be able to create favourable Green Tape (the rules, regulations and tax regimes surrounding renewable investments). At the moment energy lobbying is clearly in the hands of the oil and gas companies. This balance needs some redress, and massive capital injections are going to help.

Finally lets not also forget that bubbles can and do change the world. The first internet “bubble” popped, but you’re not about to tell me the transformation is over, and or has even started, yet…Innovation is discontinuous, and that’s why I am not afraid of some bubble tendencies. We just need to make sure some of the gum sticks when it bursts…


picture courtesy of chefranden on Flickr under creative commons Attribution 2.0 license.