By Kathleen Davis, Senior Editor, POWERGRID International magazine
“If you’re going to Brussels, you must go to the Grand Place,” a friend told me. So, when traveling to Eurelectric’s recent policy workshop “How Will Smart Grids Change the Face of Europe’s Electricity Distribution and Consumption?” which happened to be in Brussels, I did just that. I visited.
For a “grand” place, it was very, very small – about the size of my workplace’s parking lot back home, but more delightfully surrounded by gorgeous old mercantile guild buildings constructed in the late 17th Century rather than home’s less attractive chain link fence constructed about 15 years ago. So, surprisingly small but surprisingly delightful, that Grand Place.
The same can be said for Eurelectric’s smart grids policy workshop April 13 & 14, 2010 in Brussels. Tucked into a large ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in the European Union part of the city, the workshop packed a lot of delightful information into a small, compact two-day format.
Per Hallberg, chairman of the Eurelectric working group on smart grids, opened the forum with a discussion on how important power and the power industry are to Europe and the world.
“Europe has put its electricity sector on the move,” Hallberg noted, reminding the audience that a decade before the continent had decided to start opening up electricity markets. “Step-by-step we are building the European market.”
The idea to open that market fully requires a line between the competitive and the social sides of power, Hallberg added. That means communication among consumers, regulators, industry insiders and other players, especially the distribution system operators (DSOs).
“Europe’s DSOs have a key role to play in integrating the low-carbon power sources that are essential to reach [Europe’s climate change policy] targets and in facilitating well-functioning electricity retail markets in Europe. Smart grids can help us deliver on that. DSOs, however, need to be able to implement them now.”
Hallberg was followed by John Dalli, the European commissioner for health and consumer policy, who focused on one specific group of smart grid participants, the consumer.
“We need to demonstrate that [smart grids] will yield positive results for consumers,” he told an audience of about 100 on Tuesday, April 13, adding that he wanted the smart grid to be simple, prompt and affordable for power users. He noted that smart meters and the smart grid have great potential but pose a challenge to societies used to the traditional form of power production.
“I look forward to the future of electricity being much more consumer-focused,” Dalli noted, stressing three consumer points on his agenda: meters designed so that non-experts can use them, meters that have relevant information and guarantees on personal data protection.
Following the opening statements by Hallberg and Dalli, the first session of the workshop focused entirely on consumers. The executive panel discussion labeled “From Smart Meters to Energy Saving Benefits for the Customer: A Long Way to Go” featured seven speakers across the industry and regulatory bodies, including: Per Hallberg; Jorge Vasconcelos, chairman of New Energy Solutions; Tomas Wall, VP of R&D at Fortum; Paul RÃ¼big, a member of the European parliament; Jessica Stromback, senior partner with VaasaETT’s global energy think tank; Milan Spatenka, the head of grids development for CEZ and JoÃ£o Torres the CEO of EDP DistribuÃ§Ã£o.
Developing the grid’s retail and consumer side of things is becoming a very important part of the smart grid equation, according to panelists. Hallberg noted that, as a society, “we need to consume less and consume smart.”
But that issue of less consumption will take all sides of the issue to overcome the large challenge of non-traditional power roles and new technology, including that wily consumer, according to Torres. And the consumer is the all-important part of the equation to Rubig, who requested “knowledge distribution” across the board.
Wall noted that, while the consumer does need to be part of the discussion, there is still a valid argument about whether the consumer really cares about the smart grid in general or the smart grid specifically. For the type of smart grid envisioned, a very active customer must be involved, and there was no consensus among the panelists on whether such a consumer exists.
Most of Eurelectric’s smart grid workshop centered around an active consumer on both days. Philip Lowe, the director general for energy at the European Commission noted, in fact, that “active consumers are the heart of an active retail market that incorporates smart grids.”
“Optimization of the electricity system is a public interest,” added Patrick Van Hove, research program officer for DG Research within the European Commission. Van Hove said that such optimization to benefit that consumer and all of society requires cash and responsibility, adding that a three billion euro annual amount spent on smart grids and related technologies and programs needs to raise to eight billion euro annually in the next few years, with an additional 50 billion euro investment over the next decade. Along with forking over a lot of funds, though, industry players need to also invest in their roles in the process.
“Optimization is the responsibility of many,” Van Hove added.
Van Hove’s points were supported by Tahir Kapetanovic, director of electricity at E-Control GmbH, the Austrian power regulator. He added that the regulators have two very important roles in the process: helping investment and giving guidance.
“We have to keep the people, the customers, on board,” added Peter Birkner, chairman of Eurelectric’s networks committee. According to the experts at Eurelectric’s smart grid policy workshop, the one person that still needs to be convinced about the smart grid may be the person at the end of the light switch. In the end, the grand scale of the smart grid will depend, it seems, on small individual consumer choices.
Editor’s Note: This is an extremely abbreviated version of a feature piece to appear in the June issue of POWERGRID International magazine.