A Disruptive Change in Energy Supply
Updated: Jan 20
Industry leader Daniel Schwab, encourages the use of Microgrids as the new way of distributing and managing power-flow, avoiding outages, reducing costs and ensuring green, sustainable energy.
Tel Aviv, January 1, 2020: Significant changes are looming in the electricity and energy industries. Within a fairly short time, we may see the disappearance of the traditional electricity generating monoliths, or at very least a reduction of their dominance in the supply chain of power to population centers and industry.
This change will be driven by the greater adoption of Microgrids, essentially groups of interconnected decentralized energy resources, acting as single controllable entities that connect and disconnect from the grid to operate autonomously. They are ideally suitable for communities – rural or urban – major university and hospital campuses, airports or transportation hubs, government installations, and many other contained locations.
With an often unstable main grid electricity supply, Microgrids provide more sustainable, secure, resilient and reliable energy transmission systems, at a lower cost, with higher penetration of intermittent energy resources, and answer the need to reduce carbon emissions.
In the opinion of Daniel Schwab, a globally-respected energy consultant and CEO of Brightmerge, there are a number of major challenges facing the energy industry today. Brightmerge is an Israeli startup streamlining the decision-making process in the design, implementation, operation and management of Microgrids – freeing up the bottlenecks which often prevent energy executives from taking a quantum leap into a more energy-efficient future. Brightmerge develops an AI driven performance prediction model, providing a fast, accurate, cost-effective end-to-end solution from simulation to operations.
Originally from Johannesburg, now based in Tel Aviv, Schwab was a founder of one of Africa’s leading renewable energy project developers and system integrators, Kayema Energy Solutions (Pty) Ltd., – which was sold to NYSE-traded NRG Inc., a Fortune 500 company – and BrightSource Energy Inc. generating more than $1bn in sales and which was nominated for the Energy Project Award from the South African National Energy Association.
One of the most unpredictable and least controllable challenges, says Schwab, is extreme weather and environmental conditions which can cause havoc with energy supply. As an example he cites a recent utility grid outage to alleviate the high risk of wildfires across a large area of Northern California. Pacific Gas & Electric, the giant utility whose power lines and transformers have been blamed for a series of disastrous wildfires in recent years, cut off power to an estimated 700,000 homes and businesses as powerful winds and dry conditions, with a high risk of wildfires, swept across California.
A stop sign replaced a traffic signal as Pacific Gas & Electric cut power to many parts of Northern California.Credit - Jason Henry for The New York Times.
Chaos and confusion ruled. Roads and businesses went dark without warning, nursing homes and other critical services scrambled to find backup power. People went into a frenzy figuring out how to keep the lights on, food fresh, and conduct business as usual. Generators are often the first solution people think of in these situations, which makes sense given that you can buy one at a local hardware chain.
But, says Schwab, with the judicious integration and application of Microgrids, using a combination of solar, wind and traditional energy output, this situation may have been entirely avoidable. Furthermore, he states, with a decentralized system, energy flow can be maintained with even individual households playing a significant role in the supply of energy through a system of storage batteries.
In a condominium or apartment block for example, power can be distributed among residents according to their needs. If residents are away on vacation, stored power from their apartment can be shared among other residents and they will be compensated accordingly.
The next problem to tackle is economics: refurbishing and developing new power stations costs millions – if not billions – of dollars, creating delays and subsequently leaving consumers without efficient energy delivery for months at a time.
By implementing Microgrids, he claims, delays and costs can be slashed, new energy sources can be commissioned in record time and the power can flow…if only energy executives were able to make informed decisions through the availability of streamlined data which must be provided through a highly automated process.
“There is a bottleneck today – Microgrids are not new…but energy execs, decision makers in municipalities, real estate developers, transport hub managers and so on, have just not had the tools or resources to make such critical decisions. So a Microgrid projects sit uncompleted, wasting time, effort, manpower and capital. Traditionally, an organization would bring in a highly-trained and skilled integration team, to first of all advise them on how to go about implementing and designing a system, then work with them through months of hands-on activity, to commission and then operate the system.
“Upfront development time can be slashed through the use of a platform based on proprietary machine learning and big data decision-making. Such a solution automates and optimizes the design, development, build and operation of energy microgrid systems.
“It provides smart risk mitigation, can drive Microgrid adoption, resulting in a greater return on investment. It supports energy consultants to scale their transition faster and at significantly reduced cost.”
Boiling it down to a consumer level, Schwab estimates that a small community of 5,000-6,000 residents could achieve potential saving of up 50 percent of their domestic energy costs.
“Financial decision makers, utilizing data analytics to optimize renewable microgrid systems, will be able effect energy transition into cost saving, efficient and reliable energy delivery,” he added.
The next level challenge is what Schwab calls the “human factor”. He uses his native South Africa as a prime example where incompetence, and gross mismanagement, is causing scandalously monstrous power disruptions on a daily basis…and getting worse.
“Here is a country which has an abundance of natural resources, and yet with continuous blackouts and load shedding, it cannot provide a consistent, reasonably-priced power delivery to its population. It’s no secret that sheer ‘mismanagement’ – and other human factors – have played a major role, and it is clear that the newly-appointed decision-makers need a complete revision of their approach. Microgrids, installed around the country in major urban centers, or rural communities, shopping precincts, industrial parks etc., being run with streamlined data, in a highly automated process could very well alleviate the energy interruptions currently being experienced.”
The most significant threat to energy delivery however, is what’s known as a “Black Swan” event, particularly when applied to the area of cyber security and terrorism, although it could also apply to environmental factors, such as tsunamis or freak storms.
“A “Black Swan” event is described as large-scale random event that is impossible to predict, yet has huge impact: an event or trend which manifests itself in a way that we don’t anticipate or recognize because we are looking for the manifestation within our experiences,” Schwab explained.
Cyber terrorism, in which terrorist hackers can infiltrate a system – often through seemingly innocuous channels such as edge device cameras, or even an air-conditioning unit – can wreak major havoc with an industrial plant, an airport, a community, even an entire country which could have its power suddenly terminated, leaving it at the mercy of a major terrorist attack.
“By mitigating the risks, decentralizing the power flow, ensuring that data is optimized and with back-up systems ready to kick-in immediately, Microgrids can literally save the day and help defeat such attacks,” he believes.
Schwab continued: “The world is changing rapidly, there is more and more pressure to produce ‘green’, low environmental-impact power at a much lower cost. All these issues can be tackled – they are being tackled – and the way to get them accepted and implemented is through efficient management of big-data, helping those in charge make often very complex decision, at a much faster rate with mitigated risk.”
He added: “Just take the example of electric vehicles. In Holland and other countries in Europe, large numbers of recharging centers are being established to serve the electric vehicle community, which is growing in leaps and bounds. Such centers, in which dozens of vehicles can be recharged at a time, need a decentralized power source to ensure efficient service at a reasonable cost. This would be a prime example of what we call “fractal” sites, drawing off a Microgrid (or series of Microgrids), which is turn would be drawing off solar, wind and traditional sources. The management of these fractal sites would be part and parcel off a Microgrid management system.”
While Schwab is staunch in his conviction that Microgrids are the most efficient energy delivery system for the future, he understands that people don’t yet know what or how to choose systems, and how to go about installing them.
“This new era of energy demand and supply requires leaders with vision and determination to act differently: using data systems to make optimal decisions in design, implementation and operations, we aim to be pivotal in this process,” he added.