Electricity consumption will soon be controllable via a smartphone app. Reality or utopia?
When will there be apps on our smartphones that allow us to optimize the consumption of electricity in the apartment and, as a result, save on payments? How much will the pandemic affect the global fuel and energy complex? Is the degree of wear and tear of the energy infrastructure in our country high, and what is the most effective way to modernize it? A group of Russian and French scientists gave answers to these and other questions in their research published in the highly-rated scientific journal Energy Reports.
Network deterioration is close to a critical level
In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, accidents on heating networks were perceived by Russians as something routine. At least once or twice a year, mostly in severe frost, we were customarily faced with the fact that the radiators in our houses got cold and hot water disappeared from the pipes. Waiting for the arrival of the emergency team by candlelight was also considered quite commonplace. Moreover, while in Soviet times, if the light in the building was turned off in the evening, you could safely go to bed, they would fix it in the morning at best anyway.
Now the problem has been somewhat mitigated. Deteriorated pipes, cables, and transformers break down noticeably less frequently, and it takes much less time to restore their normal operation, if necessary, than before. Nevertheless, this is more the case despite than because of it. And if someone thinks that we have only modern equipment produced in the 21st century and ready to serve uninterruptedly for several more decades, they are, of course, mistaken.
According to experts from the Australian analytical company Global Infrastructure Hub, the average deterioration of energy infrastructure in developing countries “is increasing very rapidly, and it is very difficult to stop it,” due to population growth and an increase in the average standard of living. Now it hovers around 30%, but in Russia, the situation is somewhat worse than on a global scale.
For example, the depreciation of power supply systems in our country is about 60%, high voltage, and cable lines - from 60 to 65%. More than half of the 0.38 to 110 kW power lines were designed and built about 40 years ago. Three-quarters of the thermal boilers have also been in operation for more than 40 years, with an originally planned service life of only 30 years. The water supply network is 60% worn out. 35% of the equipment of hydroelectric power plants and 20% of the equipment of thermal power plants is 100% worn out and needs not just urgent but immediate replacement.
“One of the main performance indicators of distribution grids is electricity loss. Analysis has shown that in 0.38-110 kV grids it ranges from 10 to 15%. And the actual losses in Russia amount to 130 billion kWh, i.e., 13.6% of supply to the grid. At the same time, according to the Energy Strategy till 2035, they shall not exceed 8%. This means that that we have to take urgent technical and organizational measures to change the situation,” says one of the authors of the scientific article, Director of the Center of Digital Technologies of St. Petersburg Mining University, Yury Zhukovsky.
The publication was prepared in partnership with European colleagues from the University of Montpellier and the French National Science Center. Its leading scientist Bernard Gill says that the problem of the deterioration of energy infrastructure is also typical for post-industrial states. It is a serious limiting factor for the development of the fuel and energy complex and requires immediate action on a global scale.
“Despite the relatively low level of wear and tear of energy facilities in France, this problem remains unsolved, because the amount of investment needed to reconstruct energy networks is only increasing every year. This means that the application of new technological ideas is a vital necessity for all countries, including ours. Having joined our efforts, we conducted a major international study, which made it possible to identify key solutions to improve the quality of fixed assets by the example of the state of Russian infrastructure. The methodology developed in this article can be applied to conduct similar research not only in France and Russia but also in other countries,” said Bernard Gil.
The task of the scientists was to assess infrastructure and technological solutions that can guarantee the cost-effectiveness of energy modernization. In particular, to determine the degree of influence of global challenges, such as pandemics, the need to minimize human impact on the environment, economic crises, population growth, and others, on the development of the energy sector.
The results unambiguously show that in the case of a negative scenario, the lack of sufficient investment in the industry will lead not only to a sharp increase in the number of accidents but also to the deterioration of the environmental situation in the country. But even with positive development of events, i.e., in case of the end of the lockdowns and a return to sustainable socio-economic growth, the current level of financial injections, and, most importantly, its vector, will not allow the situation to change even in a decade. After all, for the most part, the funds are invested only in the renovation of the existing material base, and not in progressive technologies.
“The increasing density of energy consumption associated with population migration and digitalization, as well as scientific and technological development, contribute to and accelerate existing problems of infrastructure deterioration. By 2030, the impact of such challenges as ‘population growth,’ ‘urbanization,’ and ‘energy consumption growth’ will only increase, which will affect the aging of fixed assets. This prospect requires not only increased funding for the Russian fuel and energy complex to improve our energy and environmental security, but also a higher degree of penetration in the industry of such blocks as renewable energy, information, and digital technologies,” says Associate Professor of Economics, Organization and Management Department at St. Petersburg Mining University Mikhail Shabalov.
What exactly are we talking about? What solutions could make the domestic energy sector more competitive? Among the measures proposed by scientists, for example, is the transition to digital smart substations that are used to supply power to large industrial and municipal consumers. Modern technologies make it possible to guarantee a relatively low cost of their construction and minimize their size. And built-in measuring devices provide a higher level of automation protection, monitor data as well as transfer this information to a server for further interpretation.
Parallel transition to the active-adaptive network, implementation of smart metering, and specialized digital platforms will lead to the fact that enterprises and households will be able to manage their energy consumption more flexibly. And this will allow them to reduce the amount of energy and the number of payments for electricity. The system will function in the following way: the data from the substation come to the servers, and then the digital platform uses special algorithms to make appropriate calculations and offer the company’s management several options for optimizing the equipment operation.
In other words, the top manager sees in the app not only the information about electricity consumption and prices throughout the day but also recommendations that can help improve the profitability of production. For example, they can be related to replacing machines with more energy-efficient ones, or to their reaching full capacity at a certain time of the day when the load on the grid and the cost per kilowatt-hour are usually lower. And this information is not unsubstantiated but is accompanied by approximate amounts that are expected to be saved.
“Often, when choosing a project for financing, investors are guided either by a certain hype created around this or that industry (for example, electric cars or cryptocurrencies) or by a high guarantee of profitability and the absence of significant risks. When it comes to energy infrastructure, let alone real production, many people have doubts, because in this case, it is very difficult to predict economic productivity. Even the owner often perceives the need for such investments as a burden, not as a chance to increase profits. Well, our study clearly shows that each ruble invested in the digitalization and informatization of the energy facilities will give a much more tangible effect than the same amount spent only for the renovation of fixed assets, without taking into account the scientific and technological progress,” explains Yuri Zhukovsky.
What are the benefits for average consumers?
The ways to reduce the number of electricity bills at home have been known for a long time. Among them is giving up incandescent light bulbs or washing clothes after 11 p.m., when nighttime rates are in effect. Doing this, by the way, is better at 30 degrees because higher values significantly increase energy consumption. In addition, it is also necessary to turn off lights in rooms where no one is present and to wash windows to make the rooms brighter.
There is no doubt that such tactics work, but it is very difficult to convince yourself of this based on abstract knowledge. It’s quite another matter if the app on your smartphone shows actual information about how much electricity you saved yesterday by taking certain actions. Such clarity and specificity of calculations would certainly increase the number of people who want to save on energy consumption.
“We expect that the modernization of the energy infrastructure based on the implementation of smart grids and digital platforms will facilitate the emergence of new services and applications that allow us to manage electricity consumption. Ultimately, this will change our daily lives. We will get a more flexible power system, eliminate the growing threats to the quality of power supply, and attract additional external investments into the industry,” Mikhail Shabalov is sure.
According to the authors of the article, the implementation of such technologies, in case of a positive scenario, may take no more than ten years. So, another extremely useful application may appear in our smartphones in the foreseeable future. However, to translate this idea into reality, we need to start working on it today. Otherwise, another scenario described by Nekrasov in his poem “The Railroad” will come true:
“Only alas — live in that beautiful era
I shall no more, and neither shall you.”