Why ‘Everything as a Grid’ is key to unlocking a low-carbon energy future

Giuseppe Sgrò, Energy Storage and Emerging Technologies Executive, Eaton

By 2035, half of the world’s electricity will come from renewable resources. The traditional model of a centralised electricity supply has been upended. We have seen – and will continue to see – an increase in distributed energy resources with more homes, businesses and communities able to produce and sell energy as well as consume it. This energy transition is changing how power needs to be managed and optimised for homes, commercial buildings and industrial environments.

There are two fundamental trends upending the energy status quo that is driving a need for an ‘Everything as a Grid’ environment: increasing electricity demand and the fact a centralised supply is no longer the only option. Increased electricity demand is being driven by how buildings, transportation and the data economy are powered – by 2050 analysts expect a 50 per cent increase in the share of energy provided to buildings and over the next decade the electrification of the transport sector is expected to boost global electricity demand by 27 per cent, while the demand produced by data and computing will quadruple. At the same time, the old model of centralised electrical supply is just that – old.

Taking an “Everything as a Grid” approach to the energy transition will unlock a low-carbon energy future. By ensuring more renewable resources, behind-the-meter assets and smart electric vehicle infrastructure can be added to the energy mix, we have the opportunity to create more sustainable and resilient infrastructure while lowering energy costs. 

Decentralisation is key to decarbonisation

In terms of power supplied, much of the renewable generation capacity currently installed can be considered a like-for-like replacement for coal and natural gas plants – and while these are usually in the form of large-scale farms there are many smaller installations that contribute to this energy mix. Having this in place changes the complexion of the grid as it can no longer be assumed that the grid is divided into points of power production and power consumption. Rather, it’s increasingly the case that buildings which consume power will also produce their power, and the grid is adapting to that by allowing small-scale producers to feed power back to the grid when they have a surplus.

From the grid’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether this power is being fed back in from a solar panel or if it comes from a battery system – and that is the real opportunity we are beginning to see. BloombergNEF’s 2019 New Energy Outlook foresees the installed base of energy storage growing 13 times over the next decade with the adoption of behind-the-meter assets such as electric vehicle charging stations and on-site static battery systems. The latter can be installed to provide back-up power to reserve energy generated in off-peak periods for later use, or to charge electric vehicles, but for much of the time the energy stored is likely to be sitting idle – highlighting how decentralisation offers the means for distributed storage to support the grid on a national level.

So what does ‘Everything as a Grid’ look like?

The idea behind ‘Everything as a grid’ is that everyone can be a participant in energy production – and if the nation is serious about meeting emissions targets then it is a must. The energy transition is changing the electrical power value chain leading to a new decentralised and bidirectional grid in which every market participant can be both consumer and producer of energy, creating an ‘Everything as a Grid’ environment.

For example, behind-the-meter assets in homes can be used to store solar energy during the day to charge electric vehicles at night, while in commercial buildings they can maintain critical up-time by providing energy if the grid fails. Creating this system is about technologies that enable the integration of renewables and allow existing and new electrical loads including data centres, buildings, factories, and electric vehicles to support local and national grids.

The switch to a grid powered by renewable energy is no longer up for debate and the problem that needs to be solved is how every part of society can play a role in achieving a zero carbon future. Taking pressure off of the grid by decentralising our energy supply is the only way the country can meet demand, ensure a reliable power supply and simultaneously decrease reliance on fossil fuels. 

The road to net zero is not an easy one – and we’re only going to get there by taking a more collaborative approach to how we consume and produce energy. Everybody has their own part to play and in doing so we can make tangible progress to mitigating one of the key factors pushing modern day climate change.