The British Government has recently announced £1.3bn-worth of investment to deliver new homes, infrastructure and jobs. The Getting Building Fund aims to boost work, jobs and regenerate ageing infrastructure in towns and cities. The great news is that it’s predicted to save 65m kgs of CO2 in emissions through insulation improvements, alternative fuels and mass decarbonisation of infrastructure.
The key word is ‘infrastructure’ – the set of fundamental facilities and systems serving a group of people and needed to sustain a society. I read one definition that described the interlinked elements of infrastructure as veins and arteries, attaching society to critical services. But if these services are the arteries, then the system needs a brain overseeing it all, and that is where we turn to digitalisation as the covering layer of ‘structure’ that brings meaning to it all.
We (the 7.6bn of us on earth today) now create 2.5 quintillion bytes (2.5,000,000,000,000,000,000) of data per day. Every day, 306.4bn e-mails are sent, and 500m Tweets are made. Now imagine factoring in the data being generated from our connected buildings, our smart meters in our homes, mobile phone data, the new wave of IoT-connected devices and the thousands of other data-rich devices that will emerge in the next 10 years.
Despite the volume and complexity of this interconnected data, it is this same data that holds the key to advancing our ambition towards becoming a low-carbon economy – one where transparency of information aids connectivity and points us firmly in the direction of decarbonised heat, transport and energy networks. These once disparate systems now have the potential to forge inseparable links, solving problems at a local level like air quality and CO2, right through to providing energy generation and stability at the grid edge (as mentioned in my last blog). Our computing power is up to the job, but the frustration can lie at the walls we build around these systems and the data we choose to share (or not!).
The digital city
Open data and digitalisation will underpin our new ‘whole system thinking’ and it is the only way to achieve net zero and mass decarbonisation of our cities and energy systems. This aspect of virtual management, interpretation and use of data brings a new layer of infrastructure to our cities and, over the coming years, deciding how this data is used to enhance the quality of life of the citizens who live there will be crucial.
London has already made huge progress in this field. Ten years ago, it launched the London Datastore; the first of its kind developed by any major city in the world with the goal of creating civic transparency on a massive scale. The premise was that the Greater London Authority would make large swathes of data freely available to anyone who needed it. Sensors, surveys and all means of qualitative and quantitative data is collected in real-time; on the economy, transport, environment, housing and health. In 2020, the platform has 60,000 users each month and is home to more than 6,000 datasets. There are now multiple applications in circulation that make use of the data, from rental property maps, to school availability, traffic and travel and air quality.
By putting data on ‘free-vend’ at this scale, developers, city planners and start-ups can tailor solutions for communities, ultimately improving the quality of life for people in the city. The old island mentality of a number of sectors is fast becoming a thing of the past, which will in turn have huge benefits for our energy system. Many of these benefits will come at the grid edge (the point where a smart grid meets a smart building or end user).
We see smart buildings as a key part of the system, not only working in tandem with the needs of the grid but also directly improving the lives of its occupants. Underpinning all of this is a building’s ability to react and adapt in real-time. Smart buildings support this by becoming prosumers of energy, flexibly consuming and producing power loads based on the needs of the grid and the building’s occupants. By deploying smart digital technologies buildings can also sell power back to the energy market, offering a new income stream for building owners; and better yet, potentially reduce the need for back-up power plants for the grid, which are traditionally carbon intensive.
Smart buildings are far more suited to providing clean, safe and productive environments inside; from temperature control to fire and safety. And as the world reopens after COVID-19 lockdowns, decreased use of office space, power management to sparsely populated parts of the building, as well as occupant density information will soon become the natural characteristics of huge areas of real estate in towns and cities.
Moving towards e-mobility
However, to focus solely on the interlinking of the grid to buildings and their occupants would be to miss a huge sector, ripe for mass decarbonisation. That sector is of course transport. The Prime Minister has already said that by 2035 (accelerated from the initial planned date of 2040) there will be no internal combustion engine cars on sale, with all cars on the road being ultra-low emission by 2050.
Transport currently amounts to one third of all UK emissions, mainly due to the internal combustion engine. In the not too distant future, EV owners will be encouraged to plug in every day. A smart charging system will decide the best time to charge; perhaps when demand is low and production high from renewables. Vehicle to grid (V2G) technology will be able to use predictive analytics and open data so that individual profiles can be amassed, and predictions made about behaviour and driving patterns. This means that peak demand could be managed with energy being delivered from millions of parked and connected vehicles, or conversely those same vehicles storing surplus energy from the grid at times of low demand and high generation. Smart charging will enable live price signalling to allow customers to either be paid for helping balance the grid (‘plug in now and we’ll give you £50’, for example) or to help with peak demand (from the hours of 6pm to 8pm your vehicle’s battery will be limited to 50% capacity to flatten the curve of peak demand). Users could either choose to manage these live price signals themselves or simply let the artificial intelligence (AI) decide the best course of action.
All these changes will require an interface for customers; a point at which they can choose to see charging patterns, consumption figures or the two-way movement of their energy. Here at Siemens, we’re strong believers in the adage ‘if it can be measured, it can be improved’ and our teams in Digital Grid, based in Nottingham, are working on the national roll-out of SMETS 2 (Smart Metering Equipment Technical Specifications). This is the first step in digitalising residential and private properties to gain that whole system view of consumption, usage and general electricity habits from millions of homes and offices. Not only are we empowering consumers to proactively take more of an interest in energy, we’re opening-up the country’s ‘habitual’ energy patterns in a bid to more accurately manage the grid and the demand placed on it.
This is the main reason we’re working with Innovate UK on the Your Online Digital Architecture (YODA) project. Our goal is to create a national repository of information on the energy network, integrating data from energy producers, consumers and distributors. It’s the first major step in joining-up all the pieces in our world of energy and painting a national picture of usage in the UK. This platform will enable better local energy management and support the drive to decarbonisation by providing a central energy data catalogue, an energy map of generation and demand, and an asset register for all new energy assets.
From analogue to digital
It’s something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime and sometimes the amount of data that could be potentially generated and interpreted by the software leaves my head spinning. If I think back to my early career in the electricity industry, I remember my first walk around a power station (coal-fired, naturally!?) and listening to the ‘half-hourly’ instructions the station operator would receive, based on the ‘best-guess’ requirement of the system operator.. all perfectly adequate when you have a predictable load, and a controllable supply… Now we’re able to witness computing that scales up the processing power of those people by colossal amounts – billions of bytes of information being interpreted in seconds to decide upon electrical loads, comfort levels, price signals, temperatures, weather fluctuations and at the end of the day, the wellbeing of the millions of people at the other end.
For me this is the very essence of the grid edge, of smart grids, big data and predictive analytics; it’s the family sitting in their living room watching TV or the pensioner turning up their heating in winter. Life exists at the grid edge, between generation and use.
But while the system grows and more and more aspects of our lives generate and transmit data, we need to ensure that the governance we put in place is robust and that changes are truly life-enhancing for all users, not just large institutions and governments. The democratisation of energy, heat and transport are all important, but first we must enable the secure democratisation of data (a nice title for my next blog ). Only then can we truly realise the power of a totally integrated system, worthy of the title ‘smart infrastructure’.