Why direct current?
Nowadays it is taken for granted that the supply of electricity runs normally and smoothly. It is the question whether this will continue in the near future because of the scarcity of fossil fuels and increasing environmental problems, which is a well-known issue. A less known issue, but essential, is that our current power grid is totally outdated and does not meet the requirements of the modern technological age of today. Although solutions are obvious, there is much resistance from the conservative energy market and the outdated regulations inhibits innovative initiatives.
Electrical Energy System
The current system of energy generation and transportation in the Netherlands is on the brink of revolutionary changes. First, the system becomes overloaded shortly. On the other hand, it is technically possible to make a district completely energy self-sufficient. To give a clear view on the issue we start with a description of the current electricity distribution system.
There are basically four things to point out that is acting on our current electricity network:
- Current problems: Costs
- Users: Need more energy!
- Renewable sources and decreasing position of power
- International transportation: HVDC
Current Problems: Costs
Three factors are important in order to chart the current problems: unbalance, network quality, and CO2 emissions. Despite the complexity of these elements, we will give a brief sketch. Currently the biggest problem for our energy network is the so-called imbalance between production and consumption of energy. Our current grid has great difficulty to match the same amount of energy that is consumed with what is produced, within the same time span. This results in imbalance. The quality of the current infrastructure is outdated. This infrastructure dates from the time that there is only light bulbs, jet stoves, washing machines and TVs to be served. The increasing 'electronizing' of our society - every household has more electronics in use - makes the electricity grid increasingly inefficient. Even if all of us switch to producing sustainable energy, there will still be a need of power plants to supplement the shortage of energy whenever the solar or wind power is insufficient.
Users: More and More!!
Energy consumption will grow explosively in the coming years. If we massively switch to electric vehicles, then the current system is unable to handle this. Charging your own electric car at your front door is certainly not possible in the current structure. This will lead to gigantic charging issues. In addition, the increased energy usage in the IT sector is becoming a serious problem. The Netherlands is by far an interesting location for data centers because of its geographical position, good Internet infrastructure, and stable political climate. The expectation is then that the number of data centers will grow explosively in the coming years. Our current electricity infrastructure can not meet this extra tax.
Renewable Energy Sources and Decreasing Position of Power
The coming years are crucial in sustainable energy. The large scale development of offshore wind farms creates an enormous strain on the existing electricity grid. The transportation of the renewable energy currently has an adverse side effect. It has to be supplemented by traditional power plants in order to deliver energy at the moment when, for example, there is no wind or sun. This means additional investment. Energy companies - which hold the same cost - do not opt for these additional costs and delay sustainable innovation. Moreover, renewable energy generators are their competitors who reduce their monopoly position. For that reason, the energy suppliers obstruct the innovation on renewable energy. Also the long write of period (30 years) of coal-fired power stations inhibits renewable energy innovation.
Transportation & International Transportation: HVDC
The current Dutch electricity grid is linked to an international network. At the time that the Netherlands has an electricity surplus, this is being transported to Norway in order to deliver extra capacity. Of course, this is also vice-versa when we have a temporary shortage of capacity. For the transport over long distances direct current (DC) is neccessary. Converting the energy into direct current for transportation is unnecessarily expensive and complex with our current infrastructure of alternating current (AC).
In the coming years, many new energy-neutral districts in the Netherlands will be built. This means that there will be as much energy produced as there will be consumed. In theory, that is an excellent principle. In practice, the implementation of this is difficult to achieve. Nowadays, many plans have been conceived for the development of sustainable neighborhoods. These are new-building projects which are more or less self-sustaining in the energy demand for heating (and cooling). These local initiatives are successful, cost effective, and environmentally sound. This principle, which mainly focuses on heating and cooling of the district, can also be used for supply of electricity. Through wind and solar power it is possible to start a small utility company. The implementation of a power variation is a major challenge. The current infrastructure is not efficient for local networks. The history appears to repeat itself: a second War of Currents is currently taking place. The diagram below compares the losses in AC vs DC voltage.
Edison was a proponent of DC, and as early as in the end of 1800, he saw already the benefits of an efficient energy transportation. Since conversion was a problem then, the choice fell upon the model of Tesla, namely alternating current (AC). Then, AC was the right choice. However, by the upcoming use of electronics - mainly working on direct current (DC) - the situation has changed considerably. Also since renewable energy sources produce mainly DC, we are forced to revise our electricity infrastructure and we must consider a phased transition to DC.
The parallel with the Internet is a good example to show how to use energy efficiently. In the beginning of Internet, the earning flow was based pm data transportation combined with usage time. Internet costs were then billed monthly based on minutes on the phone. Energy companies still work in this structure. The success of Internet is partly determined by the use of a new settlement model in which the emphasis was no longer in minutes, but rather on providing the infrastructure (fiber optics). Government and energy companies should seriously think about this principle.
In order to manage and sell renewable energy We should also consider the reintroduction of common local energy companies (GEB.2), owned by the energy generators such as the residents of a neighborhood. In this model the electricity network has a local structure, and then it will not matter whether the electric car is being charged in a parking lot or at the door of one's home. Residents of apartment buildings as well can recharge their cars with collectively generated energy by their own charging utility. The diagram below explains the working of the Local Energy Company.
Structure of a Local Energy Company (Version 2) - GEB.2
Due to the impending shortage of fossil fuels, and the resulting rise of renewable energy, direct current is an obvious solution.
The surplus value of direct current to the society is huge:
- DC is a democratic system: the monopoly of the energy companies is getting smaller and direct cooperation between producers and consumers via a joint energy company becomes possible. Not only the producer, but also the consumer will have a greater part in their own say and insight into their own energy system.
- System equivalence: people with their own charging point at the front door, as well as people without one, will have the same capabilities and energy costs. Even residents of apartment buildings will have their own charging point and will be charging through their own charging utility. The private utility and the energy usage utility will remain separated though. This is to guarantee the privacy of the consumer.
- DC makes it possible for energy, especially renewable energy, to be fully used, because the most efficient transfer takes place between source and load - without unnecessary conversions.
- DC ensures that the CO2 targets are achieved immediately, because switching to DC yields extra energy through reduced transportation and revenue losses.
- Also by reducing the use of resources - including circa 20% copper reduction - DC will indirectly have an immediate effect on lowering CO2 emissions.
- By generating their own energy and the insight of their private consumption the consumers become energy-conscious. The profits of delivering back surplus generated energy will add an extra incentive to awareness of the producer/consumer in dealing with energy.
- DC drives knowledge innovation and improves the image of technical education in the energy market.
- DC makes it possible that the cost price of energy will be ultimately determined by the infrastructure and no longer by the consumption. This is similar to Internet: the consumption lies in your hands, the infrastructure lies with the government.
- DC makes it possible to invest functional in infrastructure and not in emergency solutions, as is currently done by mega-investments.
- DC reduces horizontal pollution because pylons, disturbing the landscape now, will be redundant with DC. By eliminating these masts valuable land will be made available for housing and recreation.
- DC has less impact on health.
In the current energy climate, the following points are important:
Regulations and standards must be prepared or revised.
Permits must be granted to groups of users who want to connect to a shared network. The government should give permission to districts, which collectively invest in renewable energy, allowing them to build their own energy grid and to manage it through a local, common energy company (GEB.2).
The government should bring together more technical people from different disciplines, with substantive knowledge in order to objectively advise the directors in taking decisions on energy.
An innovative way of thinking must be created in the world energy and electricity. Challenging solutions should be better viewed and the grant process for innovation should be less cumbersome and more accessible to small businesses.
It is important that the government retains ownership of all network infrastructures to maintain its monitoring role, and to avoid possible abuse and monopoly formation.
Energy consumption should be directly settled and not indirectly through taxes and other charges (including European grants and government support for power plants). Also, the compensatory measures of the government to large consumers of energy should be ended, because this is an unfair competition between sustainable and unsustainable solutions. This frustrates and inhibits innovation.
The government should arrange for accelerated depreciation of investments in renewable sources as possible and continue. This will be an accelerating effect on the introduction and replacement of new sustainable technologies.
At this moment, many things take place in the energy market and we stand at the dawn of a new era. The government, energy companies, local governments, and citizens, play an important role and should consider the impact of this change. We need to consider tactfully about the introduction of a new energy system. We must ask ourselves what is the most effective way. We must not only focus on energy consumption, but also ask ourselves how we should deal with energy generation in the future, the management and commercialization of renewable energy. In today's technological age, a phased transition to DC would be a logical solution. In this transition, the government and scientists play an important, innovative role.