Monthly Archives: March 2016

Energy Hackers are on their way

The power generation costs of photovoltaic systems have dropped in recent years and are still falling. Lazard, a consultancy, calculated that at the end of 2014 in the USA the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) was 180-265$/MWh for domestic installations and 126-177$/MWh for installations in businesses and industry. According to these figures, photovoltaic energy has a lower LCOE than electricity generation using a diesel generator, and is at the same order of magnitude as gas turbine generators at peak times. The Rocky Mountain Institute, Colorado (USA) forecasts that this technology will be used in combination with batteries for storing photovoltaic energy, whose installation costs will also fall. Using a system of these characteristics, consumers will have the opportunity to decide freely between connecting to a traditional electrical grid or going off-grid.

Using a system of these characteristics, consumers will have the opportunity to decide freely between connecting to a traditional electrical grid or going off-grid.

Operating an off-grid system still has considerable technical problems that need to be resolved for users to enjoy the same kind of quality as that provided by connection to a grid. Although not at first evident, the impact that consumers going off-grid could have on the electrical grid is vast. If an increasing number of consumers chose this option, the grid will have fewer consumers connected to the same infrastructure. This means that a decreasing number of consumers will have to bear the cost of the infrastructure, which will lead to higher access charges. This will encourage consumers who are still connected to take the step of going off the grid, as others will already have done. This is a variant of the economy of scale, but with a reduction in production. In an economy of scale, the product gets cheaper because the costs are divided between an amount that increases constantly. If the amount that is produced is reduced, the product gets more expensive. If we apply this process to electricity grids, it is called “grid defection”: consumers deserting the traditional electrical grid.

Currently, a similar process is happening in Spain, caused by the recession and the resulting decrease in demand.

The Decree on Energy Self-Consumption was drawn up to regulate aspects of this trend. It introduces a backup toll for photovoltaic installations that enable self-consumption and are connected to the grid. The success of the measure still remains to be seen. It adds costs to energy self-consumption installations that will limit the expansion of these systems.

In any case, this measure will provide an additional incentive for consumers who are considering off-grid systems to take the next step. These consumers are known as Energy Hackers, as they seek a technological solution for a need that is not met by the current electricity system. They prefer renewable, locally generated energy. They already have part of the installations (their homes or businesses), energy resources and investment capacity. They are proactive, and want to be able to decide on energy issues. They differ from computer hackers: they are not young people, but people with homes, capital, and grey hairs on their heads. Energy hacking is not an illegal activity, as everyone is free to do what they want in their homes. However, it forces the system to react and respond. Energy hackers have strong allies: the Internet of Things (IoT) and home automation. The IoT is developed in the homes of consumers, it is user-centred, and can offer new services to consumers in exchange for their data. Energy hackers may explore its potential in energy-related applications, and try to create added value to make investment in automation worthwhile.

Electricity companies are beginning to realize that they must change their business strategy. Added value is no longer created by the distribution and sale of energy; with these new actors a very different economic ecosystem is emerging. Currently, energy is an undifferentiated asset; to create added value, services must be offered that differentiate the product from that of other companies. A system will numerous small producers, active consumers, management of demand, renewable energy and batteries would provide the perfect ecosystem for creating new services with a much greater added value than the sale of energy. We should not forget that, like the IoT, electricity distribution companies have direct access to the client and home installations. Energy hackers could be allies of electricity companies and create value with them. The coming years will be very interesting as we will see how the two giants of the IoT and electricity distribution fight to gain control of a market that is still hard to imagine.

Dr. Andreas Sumper, CITCEA UPC Researcher,
CIT UPC member
Article published in the journal “Automática e Instrumentación” on 27.10.2015

The importance of research rankings

Pedro Rodríguez, director of SEER UPC

At the beginning of the year, several rankings have been published that analyze innovative activity at all levels. They have revealed that the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya·BarcelonaTech (UPC) tops the ranking of technical universities in terms of scientific output and productivity, and that South Korea, Germany and Switzerland are on the pedestal of innovation, at global level, according to Bloomberg.

These are two examples of the increasingly common rankings that are published in the research and development environment. Each one uses its own method, so results differ, but if we analyze the rankings in detail the leaders do not change: the top ten countries tend to be the same, although the order varies. The same situation is found with universities and research centers. Regardless of the system that is used, the best are always at the top.

However, it is difficult to assess research results at individual level. Numerous awards recognize the best researchers in their respective areas of knowledge, but it is clearly much harder to analyze and compare research work at a general level using objective parameters.

One method that is considered valid worldwide is citation analysis. The aim is to determine the impact of the papers published by each researcher on all scientific knowledge. The number of times an article is cited is used to check its importance, and h-index can be used as an indicator of the quality and impact of scientific output.

The publishing company Thomson Reuters, which indexes all of the papers published in high-impact journals, as well as conference papers and books, has released lists of the most frequently cited researchers in the world.

One person who features on the lists is an electrical engineer called Pedro Rodríguez Cortés, the head of SEER UPC (Renewable Electrical Energy Systems, a CIT UPC member center). His intense activity has led to the publication of 66 papers since 2005, which have obtained 2,528 citations (over 44 per paper, on average) and raised his h-index to 26. According to Reuters’ data, Pedro Rodríguez is one of the 54 researchers working in Spain who have reached the top 3,000 science researchers worldwide.

This recognition is particularly important as it increases the visibility of applied research and its relation with the production sector. Pedro Rodríguez’s work in the field of renewable energies, smart grids, power electronics and distributed electricity generation, most of which is associated with industrial developments, has also received the approval of colleagues worldwide who have used his studies as the basis for new contributions to scientific knowledge.

The work carried out in technology centers, to bring technology to companies through research and development projects based on knowledge derived from the university, is the key to the CIT UPC. The task of over 500 researchers who are associated with the CIT UPC Technology Center is successfully concluded when the companies we collaborate with obtain competitive advantages that enable them to improve through technology.

However, for this to happen, the production sector must first value the potential of this mode of research. This recognition is not easy to achieve, because although companies know their opportunities to improve better than anybody, in many cases they do not consider collaborating with a specialized technology center.

This is where external recognition comes into play. Beyond everyday activities, which in the case of CIT UPC produce results that speak for themselves (over 12 million euros of revenue, 110 patents registered, over 500 projects and research and development agreements, among other results), the fact that our researchers appear in global rankings of excellence is a valuable factor that contributes to making our work more visible.

For this reason, we celebrate Pedro Rodríguez’s success and want to share his brilliant contribution to international science. Our work is based on the efforts of researchers who, like Rodríguez, make their knowledge and the capabilities of our centers available to companies. The best reward for us is to have grown every year since our foundation five years ago, and to offer more and better technological developments to the production sector. We want to be at the top of this ranking too.