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October 12, 2018

Future energy grid comes under WIRED Smarter spotlight

WIRED Smarter’s recent energy conference saw industry members gather to discuss digitisation of the energy grid and how technology can place energy consumption control into the hands of consumers. Startups working in carbon capture, battery tech and solar power also presented their ideas for a renewable world.

By Scarlett Evans

This year marked the second WIRED Smarter energy stage, with speakers from a variety of industries and backgrounds gathering at the one-day event in Kings Place, London on 9 October. The discussions had a particular focus on the role of the consumer in the energy market, emphasising the importance of fostering customer engagement in light of news from the IPCC that we have only 12 years to combat climate change. As every half degree counts, the message was that individual action is now as important as that of larger corporations.

A startup showcase round was also included, discussing breakthrough technologies in carbon capture, data use and battery technology.

Managing an increasingly fragile world

Carbon capture firm Climeworks kicked off the talks, discussing the pressing need to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Founded in 2009, the firm has developed carbon capture machines that remove emissions from the energy production process and store it underground. According to speaker Jan Wurzbacher, to limit global temperatures by the 1.5 degree Celsius limit, by mid-century we need to extract eight billion tonnes of carbon from the air every year.

“We have already emitted so much CO2 that reducing emissions will not be enough,” Wurzbacher said. “We need to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere and permanently store it somewhere else.”

The firm’s carbon collector uses a fan to draw air through a filter, extracting the CO2 in the process as it binds to the surface of the filter. Possible uses for the waste gas include fertilising plants and carbonising drinks.

In October 2017, the world’s first carbon negative power plant was built in Iceland, featuring Climeworks’ machines. At the site, extracted CO2 is mixed with water and injected deep underground to react with basaltic rock formations and create solid carbonite within two years.

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Giving consumers the power

Good Energy CEO Juliet Davenport took to the stage to discuss the role of consumers in future national energy grids, saying that often consumers can be ‘far more innovative and forward thinking’ than governments.

“We are in a renewable age today,” Davenport said, citing the fact that over the last decade renewables have made up the vast majority of newly installed power plants in the UK. While the shift to renewable energy has been an undeniable positive, it has thus far been technology-led rather than consumer-led, an agenda Davenport believes should be changed through the deployment of ‘empathetic design’.

This concept means approaching developments from a consumer rather than a technological point of view, enabling peer-to-peer interactions and motivating people to take control of their energy consumption. Similarly, energy company Bulb spoke about engaging consumers by providing them with an ‘impact report’, which helps them understand their energy consumption and how they can reduce it.

Both companies emphasised the importance of integrating emerging technologies into existing infrastructure to promote customer engagement.

In a Q&A session, EY energy leader Rob Doepel said the electric vehicle (EV) market will be a driving factor in altering consumer behaviour as it requires a physical change in the infrastructure of roads, homes and petrol stations.

Doepel added that better government incentives for consumers improving energy efficiency would be crucial in seeing a significant consumer uptake of renewable technology, as well as the attainment of cost and performance parity.

“The energy system hasn’t really changed since the industrial revolution,” Doepel said, “it’s been centrally driven and centrally managed since then and this needs to change…everything we know needs to be true, can be true.”

The startups of the future

Startup companies that spoke at the event discussed a variety of technologies to improve the efficacy of battery storage, solar power and data management in the energy industry. Oxford University spinout Brill Power has designed a new battery type which draws power proportional to each battery cell and lowers costs of the technology by 20%.

Energy storage firm Graviticity has developed a means of producing energy using heavy cylindrical weights of between 500 and 5,000 tonnes lifted and dropped through deep shafts. With a 50 year design life and 70,000+ cycles, the technology offers long-life energy storage infrastructure that the company believes is needed in the UK’s new energy plan.

Solar thermal startup Senergy showcased a new solar panel using nanocomposite materials that are 50% cheaper than traditional materials, allowing it to be put at a competitive price with gas and oil.

Data and analytics firm Topolytics demonstrated a ‘meta-map’ of waste processes, offering a smart grid for the waste industry and improving transparency regarding just where our waste goes.

Energy platform Limejump showed its virtual grid that gives customers energy asset management and identifies energy- and cost- saving opportunities without the middleman.

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