Windy and sunny weather in June brought new records in electricity production by wind and solar power plants. According to WysokieNapiecie.pl, on Sunday, June 19 this year alone, this saved about a thousand coal cars and an adequate amount of dust and CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. RES then covered more than 60% of the country's power demand. Even though it was a Sunday and consumption was lower, because computers and air conditioning in offices were not working, such a share of RES in nationwide power is impressive - just 20 years ago it was single percentages.
The same portal offers an interesting description of how the power regulator of the national grid, the Polish Power Grid, deals with balancing demand and supply for electricity by juggling each day, hour by hour, the production or consumption of pumped storage power plants, by selling or buying power to other countries' grids, and as a last resort, by asking the operators of larger wind farms to turn off some of the windmills when there is already too much energy. The latter actions are possible because production from windmills can be reduced, so to speak, on-demand, in a matter of minutes, by changing the angles of attack of the propellers and slowing their rotation.
However, it is not possible to effectively offset fluctuations in power production from renewable energy sources by controlling coal-fired power plants. Switching on a coal-fired steam turbine is a multi-hour process that must be planned in advance. The intermittency of power transmitted to the national grid by RES has always been a barrier to their development. Hence the modern popularity and need for investment in all forms of energy buffering (energy banks, pumped storage power plants) or hydrogen generation technologies.
It's just a bit of a shame that while balancing power on the grid, we have to "screw up" windmills and lose wind power, while power plant chimneys continue to smoke. Especially in the evening, when the wind and sun often weaken, and demand from households usually increases. The question is how else to respond to the intermittency of RES?
Poland has always, back in the communist era, had a nighttime electricity tariff and double-rate electricity meters, which allowed electric heating (storage stoves, boilers) to run at night because there was always an excess of electricity from coal-fired power plants at night and it was cheap. For the same reasons, freight trains also often moved at night (and still do). In the same days, the hydroelectric power plant in Solina was turned on every day around 5 pm, for an hour or two at a time, to meet the demand for electricity during the "TeleExpress" broadcast at 5:15 p.m. It could not be turned on for longer, because the water supply from the Bieszczady region was too small for continuous operation.
These observations suggest that an area of interest is not only how electricity is generated, but also when it is consumed. Since the popularity of TeleExpress combined with the electricity consumption of CRT TVs in communist Poland forced us to turn on the Solina power plant, it probably matters nowadays at what times we turn on washing machines, dishwashers, irons, boilers and air conditioners in millions of homes, or when we charge our bicycles or electric cars from the socket. A few simple calculations can be made on this subject, which lead to interesting conclusions. The purpose of the calculations was to estimate the daily consumption of households and the total power they might require if we turn them on at the same time and condense their operation to several hours. We took into account only those appliances whose start-up time we can regulate without disturbing our home and family. Altogether, different variations of these calculations brought us to around 10 GWh of consumption per day.
If all of this consumption was concentrated over a few hours, it would mean a change in the power consumed on the order of several GW (or about 10% of the power with which the entire country typically operates). And this means that by regulating the times of use of some of the household appliances, it is possible to reduce evening power consumption in homes, shifting it to times when there is a strong wind or sunshine. This is entirely enough to take the surplus from wind farms. The results of these estimates are quite promising. The amount of power used up by domestic consumers is large enough to be important for stabilizing national power generation from renewable sources.
How to realize this in practice? If the "Internet of things" technology were widespread, we could order our Internet-connected washing machine or dishwasher to do its job not necessarily "now," but, for example, within the next 6 hours, or "by tomorrow morning," with the additional condition that it should do it when electricity is cheapest or the central regulator sends a message: "I have surplus power, turn on the laundry." Implementation of such solutions would enable the operator to constantly signal directly to millions of power consumers what the current power level is - whether we have a surplus or shortage.
An important part of household appliances could automatically adjust the timing of their operation, according to the level of power available on the national grid - not overloading it when there are shortages and using the excess when there is strong sun or wind. Of course, in an ideal world, all this should be regulated by the price of electricity, which could change even hourly, within safe time and price ranges, so that laundry started at a low electricity price would not end at a much higher one. After all, the situation can be dynamic - an avalanche of switching on appliances with excess power and a low power price could turn a power surplus into a power shortage - so the system should update its recommendations perhaps even every minute. All of this can be put into market fair algorithms.
However, we'll probably wait another decade before washing machines, dishwashers and electric boilers are equipped with network-connected computers that track recommendations about power on the national grid or electricity prices. Electricity meters that take into account the time of use and frequently changing prices are also needed. There is also no certainty that such a solution will catch on, as it makes home appliances more expensive for users. Perhaps sooner there will be such a saturation of the power industry with energy banks that surpluses produced by RES can be easily stored for times of shortages. After all, the ability to freely buffer electricity produced by windmills and solar is a basic condition for replacing coal power with renewable energy.
The question is, what can be done now to adapt to the irregularity of wind operation and the variable availability of sun? Well, online social technologies and positive attitudes, especially of the younger generations, towards various kinds of ecological actions coordinated via the Internet can come to the rescue. So let's imagine a web portal with a corresponding application for phones that works with a central regulator and all major wind and solar farms. The portal collects real-time data from them on the current volume of electricity production and each farm's plans and forecasts for the next 24 hours, taking into account the location of the farm and the power district to which it is assigned, because, after all, electricity should be consumed as close as possible to where it is generated. Using the mobile app user's geolocation (with the user's permission), knowledge of current production from nearby RES and the current balance of power in the nationwide grid, it is possible to recommend to residents of different regions the time to turn on household appliances, boilers or air conditioners.
The app would also allow interaction - the user would report his or her actions, indicating at what time he or she would turn on one appliance or another, which would generate feedback on time and power consumption schedules. At the right scale, with just the first million households using the system, its operation could make a difference to the national grid. A million washing machines, air conditioners, or dishwashers equals up to several GW of power. That's more than the surplus that windmills currently manage to generate.
The user's benefit from participating in such a game would, for the time being, be completely non-financial and limited to the satisfaction of supporting the development of green energy - the feeling of living in harmony with nature. Poles like to engage socially and ecologically. Charity drops are breaking records. Two decades ago, I had the opportunity to conduct research testing the public's willingness to pay higher electricity prices, provided it came entirely, literally 100%, from green sources (windmills). The research was part of a master's thesis at WNE UW under Prof. T. Żylicz. The results of this experimental ecological economics were very promising at the time - 2/3 of the Polish society were ready to bear higher costs for the sheer satisfaction of supporting ecological development. The research was part of the author's "Voluntary Clean Energy Certificates" project, whose general concept is still valid and worth implementing, if only for the promotion of RES. The whole idea was to sell to thousands of cafes or other businesses (as well as private home and apartment owners) the right to the mere "greenness" of electricity, purchased through their normal route from the local distributor. Such a service can be organized "outside the system" bypassing the market and energy exchanges, allowing any B2C business to promote its premises with a slogan sounding like this, for example: "In our hotel, we use only green electricity from a windmill - a power plant located here and here." Certainly, the "windmill" and solar industry would also benefit from this image.
A survey, conducted in cooperation with OBOP, showed that 2/3 of the Polish public, almost regardless of income level or education, were willing to pay higher prices for electricity in their private homes, apartments or businesses, if only it would come exclusively from wind power plants (at that time solar practically didn't exist on the market yet).
Such a study would have to be repeated, of course. With the involvement of even 10% of the public, we achieve the possibility of shifting even 1.0 GWh from the evening maximum of household consumption to the time of appearance of surpluses from RES. This makes the whole project make sense and our individual decisions about when to turn on the dishwasher can make a difference.
The Foundation is preparing for a pilot launch of this system. We are currently seeking support from strategic partners in the RES industry. And since the project is a community one, by internet custom, we also invite everyone to "chip in" to "let it roll": https://zrzutka.pl/sa5p52
Piotr Krupa Lubański