Truly Green Electricity? What you buy is not what you get...

Lily Cairns Haylor, Co-founder & Head of Product, Advanced Infrastructure

Where does your electricity come from?

Think about your power. Where does it come from? How far has it travelled? What were the emissions produced to generate it? Do you know which energy generators will come online if you increase your electricity consumption?

Do you know the answers? The truth is: no one does!
Our electricity markets are a product of a past when electricity tracing was neither possible nor relevant.

Buying Green Power Does Not Equal Green Consumption

Increasingly, environmentally aware consumers try to make a difference by buying Energy Attribute Certificates (EACs); in the EU these certificates are usually Guarantees of Origin (GOs) and they come in many different forms. Unlike ‘Organic’, ‘Fairtrade’, and ‘Sustainably Sourced’, no GOs guarantees that green electricity has been delivered to you through an uncorrupted supply chain.

Certificates and green energy tariffs merely give the illusion that electricity can be sent straight to the lucky buyer. In reality, users will consume whatever electricity happens to be available in their local grid at their time of use. Depending on the location and time of day, the amount of green energy available will vary: for example, there may be lots of solar generation at midday but mostly gas generation when it’s dark.

Current Procurement Mechanisms Fail To Drive Market Innovation

Why does all this matter? Because businesses spend over £49 billion annually on renewable procurement. Last year, corporations contracted more energy than the country of France consumes annually through Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) alone.

PPAs are one of the more impactful certificated sourcing models for renewable energy. They involve buying certificates along with a power purchase agreement: a contract between a corporate buyer and a renewable generator for a specified number of kilowatts over several years.  However, without electricity tracing, there is no way for the buyer to know if they ever actually consume even a kilowatt of the power they  purchased. It's like ordering vegetarian burgers and not knowing if you're really eating beef.

Unconscientious or ill-informed businesses are able to buy the cheapest certificates available with no consideration of their impact on the grid or the climate. You can even buy a certificate from a region totally disconnected from your electricity grid, from the past, with no guarantee that power was used or stored. And then you can claim to be 100% renewable, even if most of your local energy is supplied by coal generators!

Environmentally aware consumers are unable to make informed decisions when they lack information about the real physics of the electricity grid and the impact of their decision to consume energy at a given time. Researchers, Jacques de Chalendar and Sally Bensonat, at Stanford University found that the currently available data (yearly estimates of carbon emissions, based on regional averages)  overestimate emissions reductions from buying solar by as much as 50%.

Without live electricity tracing, grid operators and electricity generators are not driven to match the supply of renewable energy with local, real-time consumer demand. This is a problem in California where the term ‘duck curve’ was coined to describe the challenge of balancing a grid faced with a timing mismatch between peak solar generation - midday - and peak electricity demand - after sunset. Some certificates help fund renewable plants. But funding 12 more solar farms will not help power a factory when it needs electricity at night.

Last year, in the UK alone, electricity generation produced 90 Metric Tonnes of CO2. Thats enough to fill 45 double decker busses. Most of this CO2 is from gas turbines. These are often ‘marginal emissions generators’: generators that come online when demand exceeds renewable energy generation.

What is the Solution?

A sustainable grid needs a mix of renewable generation and energy storage to maximise the matchup between demand and supply. It needs sustainable consumption practices by end users that take into account the impact of their energy choices.

This requires accurate data tracing electricity through space (modelling the regional carbon intensity of power) and time (the hourly variation in renewable production). Making energy decisions with the currently available yearly estimates of emissions impacts “is like trying to set a daily budget with only a single year-end bank statement.”

50 years ago we lacked the motivation and the technology to solve this problem. Now energy flow modelling, big data, and AI make 24/7 energy tracing a reasonable goal.

24-7 Renewable Energy Matching

Enter Google. After becoming the first company to purchase 100% renewable power, Google have embarked upon the “much greater, longer-term challenge: sourcing carbon-free energy for our operations on a 24x7 basis.” Vattenfall and Microsoft too are piloting 24/7 matching at their headquarters in Sweden.

This approach aims to match the generation time of the renewable energy purchased with the consumption curve of the buyer. Such trials can start to shape local electricity markets: to meet the real-time needs of consumers.

24-7 Hyperlocal Matching

At Advanced Infrastructure, we are the only company offering a solution to the problem of tracing electricity through time and space.

Advanced Infrastructure have built the world’s first big data enabled platform that uses the real physics of the electricity grid to trace power. With this approach, we have been able to map the energy flows of the entire UK electricity network with data that updates in real time. A forthcoming machine learning upgrade will allow prediction of future energy flows, enabling better low carbon planning by generators, suppliers, and consumers.

Deployed at scale, real-time, hyperlocal solutions empower consumers to take action on their carbon emissions. They can also reduce the demand on fossil fuel electricity generators that currently make up for shortfalls in real-time renewable  production by supplying dirty power. and crucially marginal plants (typically gas turbines) which come online to make up the shortfall  when renewable production cannot keep up with demand.

Advanced Infrastructure have built the first live map tracing the power flows of the entire UK electricity network

A Transparent & Sustainable Future

24-7, hyperlocal, electricity data enables sustainable climate-conscious action. It enables users to actively monitor the climate impact of their energy consumption and make responsible decisions based on the carbon intensity of their local grid. It contributes to better grid planning and renewable generation projects that are targeted to local energy demand.

It is time the energy system moved from a ‘green on paper’ approach to a transparent and traceable system. A system that can claim to be truly green.

This blog was first published Nov 24 2020 on the the Data Market Services website.

Published on :
November 24, 2020
Lily Cairns Haylor, Co-founder & Head of Product, Advanced Infrastructure

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Lily Cairns Haylor
Lily Cairns Haylor