The use of renewables is on the rise worldwide. This change was initially inspired by the "green motivation" to generate environmentally friendly electricity in an effort to counter climate change and the risks associated with nuclear energy and fossil fuels. A growing number of new technologies and business models are being developed which make renewable energy less expensive and more attractive toboth suppliers and consumers as a result.
PV capacity already stands at 300 GW
The demand for environmentally friendly electricity is growing worldwide, pushing the total PV capacity installed globally to around 300 GW at the end of 2016. According to the SolarPower Europe industry association, at 76.2 GW, the amount of PV capacity newly installed worldwide in 2016 increased by 50% compared with the previous year. The rise in capacity is causing prices to fall, meaning that solar power is cheaper than ever before. In many cases, it cost just 3 to 5 US cents to generate one kilowatt hour (kWh) of solar power in 2016.
Photovoltaics has helped shape the energy transition
Besides an increase in the number of large-scale PV power plants connected to the grid, private households and companies are generating their own electricity using PV systems on the roofs of their homes and factories. Millions of large and small decentralized energy generation units, many of which are helping consumers to be completely independent of utilities, are expected to be in operation in the future. The sight of solar panels on roofs has become commonplace in Germany and the trend is rising. Taking the initiative to install a solar system is a worthwhile investment which turns individual consumers into prosumers capable of producing their own power.
The more electricity is generated using renewable sources of energy, the greater the challenges posed by distribution and effective energy consumption. This is because – regardless of whether it is generated using large-scale solar power stations or on domestic rooftops – power is not always produced where it is consumed. To compound matters, wind and solar energy production fluctuates throughout the day and night. In addition to overcoming both regional shortfalls in supply and shortages experienced during the course of the day, solutions and business models for efficient and intelligent distribution must be developed. This requires us to rethink our approach and develop new technologies capable of reorganizing the transmission of power in modern grids and of making distribution more efficient and intelligent. Since the conventional method of grid expansion has reached its limits in this regard, it is time for digitalization to come into play.
Digitalization affects all the core areas of the new energy world. Alongside electricity storage, it plays a very important role in electric power distribution and in making demand more flexible. The digital transformation is helping the decentralized energy market to work more closely together again, while enabling the various resources to be used efficiently. This entire process relies on intelligent power grids known as smart grids. These grids are able to balance energy supply and demand, which is essential for supply security and grid stability. The use of smart grids and digitalization along the energy value chain prevents overloading by enabling excess energy caused by the weather (e.g. a lot of wind or sun) to be stored and subsequently used to compensate for supply shortages.
Renewable energy is perfectly complemented by energy storage systems, which can absorb the electricity generated and make it available again when needed. Renewable energy storage solutions of all sizes, from residential and commercial devices to large-scale storage systems for stabilizing the grid, represent a strong growth market. For example, the German Solar Association (BSW-Solar) predicts that the number of solar storage systems installed in Germany will virtually double to 100,000 by the end of 2018. Meanwhile, GTM Research estimates that the US energy storage sector will have an annual market volume of more than $1 billion by 2018. The expansion of energy storage systems, the rising popularity of electric vehicles and falling cell prices are causing rechargeable batteries to become more and more widespread. Avicenne Energy expects the annual market volume of all rechargeable battery technology sales to reach 475 gigawatt hours’ worth or $80 billion worldwide by 2020.
Digitalization is playing an ever greater role in the increasingly decentralized energy infrastructure found in the renewable energy system. Smart storage units which communicate with both generators and consumers are able to compensate for imbalances and assist with the intelligent distribution of electricity. Large-scale storage systems and energy storage communities stabilize the energy supply by absorbing the electricity generated by several solar or wind energy plants at times when it cannot be directly fed into the grid. The electricity can then be fed in at a later point in time, sold on the balancing power market or consumed in order, for example, to ease peak loads. This means that energy storage systems enable domestic and commercial consumers to enjoy investment security and greater flexibility.
While large-scale power stations located far away from consumers were once the norm, today photovoltaic installations, decentralized cogeneration units and heat pumps are increasingly being used to generate electricity and heat where they are actually needed – in towns, cities and communities as well as in industrial enterprises, real estate and residential buildings, or, to put it simply, at the site of consumption.
The decentralization of the energy industry is also elevating the demand for smart control systems which connect generators and consumers, and create an optimum balance between the two. From smart meters and smart grids to smart buildings, the digitalization of the energy system has long played an important role in industry, commerce, public facilities and private households.
There is a huge potential in the building sector for electricity, heat and cooling to be generated using efficient energy technologies and renewable sources of energy. Intelligent sensor and control systems are already being employed to an ever greater extent here and will make an even more significant contribution to building energy management in the future. In this new energy world, customers are no longer passive energy consumers tied to monopolies, but have become crucial stakeholders who take responsibility for intelligently controlling their own energy consumption and have become energy producers in their own right. From decentralized and renewable power generation, to contracting and new energy services, the bounderies between generators and consumers will become more and more blurred in the future, leading to the development of new business models. This is causing the emergence of a new industry player known as the “prosumer”, in other words, an energy producer and consumer rolled into one.
There is a growing trend for stationary generation and storage solutions to be complemented by mobile concepts. For example, electric cars are, on the one hand, powered by renewable energy. On the other hand, thanks to the availability of increasingly powerful lithium-ion batteries, they can also be used as a storage medium capable of being integrated into the power grid in the digital energy value chain. This means that electric cars make a crucial contribution to grid stability. Moreover, with the help of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, vehicles connected to the grid can be automatically charged during periods of peak production to relieve the load on the grid. Conversely, the energy stored in electric cars can be used to help meet the additional demand during peak times.