The new consumer of electricity

Published: 2012-04-05

Consumers also become producers and play a central role for smart grids and cities. An article by Livio Gallo, Enel Infrastructure and Networks director in the last issue of Oxygen magazine

Smart meter

If, as the sociology of consumption has been telling us for several years, there is an important relationship between consumers and the characteristics of the intangibility of products and services, with regard to the energy ratio, it is quite implicit that it is a commodity that we take for granted. We only perceive it when it is lacking or because we have to pay the bill. Energy is among the exemplary intangible assets (for the complexity of its origin, the complicated computability of its economic value, and for its very immateriality) with which the consumer does not have an emotional bond. What we understand about energy is the power of its use, such as the number of electrical devices or other electrical instruments making it available.  

With the introduction of outsourced energy production, however, this traditional relationship between consumers and energy has been changing and it will change even more with the qualification permitted by smart grids.

Meanwhile, let us take a look at the profound transformation that is turning the consumer into consumer + producer, i.e., the so-called prosumer: to date, there are 140,000 connections to the electricity networks by this new type of customer. This is a real revolution: whereas once electricity only came from large power plants, today there are many producers providing electricity from sources such as solar, wind and biomass. This new role of the consumers, who at the same time also become producers, modifies their relationship with the energy: it becomes more friendly and more familiar. Energy is included in the choices made daily, taking on life in the planning for the day: you decide when to produce it, eat it or even sell or buy it.

But this relationship is bound to undergo a further evolution when the introduction of smart gridswill allow the consumer to have a fully active role in the energy market. With smart grids, in fact, the network, a structure designed to be one-way (from producer to consumer) has taken the Internet as its model, so that electronics, computers and integrated communication lead to an interaction between the providers and those who receive energy, even coming to anticipate the demands of consumption.

The new consumers, more careful and aware of their consumption, use the new technologies of “energy participation" that go from the household to the city, developed by the visionary and practical distributor, Enel.

There are two types of actions: a definable pull, determined by responding to and interpreting a part of the market leading to the development of energy-related products and services; and a push action of stimulus toward the market and the consumer which, in the case of Enel, leads to the qualification of the active demand, made possible thanks to the set of feasible technologies and devices that transform electrical architecture into an intelligent system.

We look to the household consumer: there are devices capable of providing a range of information in order to determine and guide personal choices of consumption, such as the power, price and volume of energy. They are made by Enel and are called Smart Info.  They are inserted into the sockets of the house and can interact with the electronic meter which, together with the Telegestore - the remote management system of the meter - is the cornerstone of the smart grid. Smart Info allows us to communicate directly with the meter and to view and monitor the evolution of consumption on the displays with which we are most familiar, such as the PC or TV; this new device is also capable of giving information to the smart white goods, allowing them to adjust their operations according to the signals of consumption and price. This experimentation is at the heart of the project that Enel is carrying out with other Energy@home companies. A project that is developing a communications platform for appliances, regulating the power consumption of the entire house. With a smart house, the consumer plays an active role in the energy market: he/she consumes and produces in response to the appropriate price signals.

But it is not just the household consumer who becomes a protagonist with smart grids, there is also the citizen consumer. In fact, smart cities are those with the application of smart grids within the urban area, where technologies enable them to make their own choices of sustainable electricity consumption.

The new electricity network is, in fact, the fundamental building block of an urban settlement designed for greater energy efficiency and economic sustainability. A place where infrastructures, services and technology combine to offer a town or city on a human scale, where energy saving, emission reduction and control of consumption become part of everyday life for its citizens, administrations and companies.

The smart city is full of all the technologies of next generation networks. Electronic meters, network automation, efficient lighting, electric mobility, integration of renewable energy, energy storage systems and devices that increase consumer awareness are the tools that allow people to live in a new urban context, a place where environmental sustainability is central, where people live in energy efficient buildings, have access to a system of eco-sustainable mobility, breathe clean air, and therefore, where the quality of life is better.

Enel is involved in smart cities projects that require a great commitment and the cooperation of many actors, such as energy companies, public institutions, universities, local governments, and  advanced technology industries. The first examples can be found in the cities of Malaga in Spain and Buzios in Brazil, while activities in Barcelona and Genoa, Bari and other Italian cities are in the planning phase. The main interventions that have been put in place in these towns concern the evolution of the electricity network, street lighting and smart buildings, management of the active demand, integration of energy production from renewable sources, electric mobility and the electrification of ports.

Smart grids are one of the frontiers for the future of electrical systems. A future toward which we are addressing a strong international commitment, knowing that there is still a long road ahead. Infrastructures of enormous size must be radically changed. The renewal of the traditional network is gradually evolving and we must deal with technical constraints to maintain strict control over the entire electrical system in a way that is efficient, reliable and safe. Experiments and pilot projects are multiplying: definitely, a lot of research as well as major investments are still needed to accomplish the new smart grids.

Nevertheless, a future made of smart grids is at hand: important steps in this direction have been made by Enel, recognized as the undisputed leader worldwide in this process of renewal, largely due to the installation of 32 million electronic meters in Italy: unprecedented experience in the world as to size, extension and improved outcomes. With smart grids, we are facing a great revolution that globally affects the entire value chain, from the production of new technologies to their installation within the electricity grid. It is, therefore, an indispensable opportunity to develop industrial inducement related to both the products and the services, with significant impacts also regarding employment (often referred to internationally as green jobs).

It is hard to predict today what scenarios we will see when the smart grids will have been fully implemented in Italy and will return an enormous wealth of data to us. Certainly, there is something that we already hope and which most of us believe: all of that information should help us design a more sustainable way of producing and consuming energy. This is true not only for the electricity companies, but especially for those who must be at the very center of the system: the consumer.

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