Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Experiments or Austerity?

I spent the day sitting at the feet of some consistently bright and generally young things at the leading edge of smart grid research, at the Dublin Electricity Research Centre’s research symposium ‘Shaping the Grid’. It was a great event, and the ERC chaps are doing great work. But something was wrong.
The wrongness started to appear in Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte’s introductory remarks. He was politely enthusiastic about the research that the ERC’s leading. But he also recognized that the problems of managing distributed generation and sustainable energy sources are immediate ones. He left in a hurry, to join a cabinet meeting in preparation for next week’s referendum to amend Ireland’s constitution to allow it to ratify the European Fiscal Compact. Tonight, central Dublin is full of posters about the referendum, and the most striking ones present images of the austerity which the Compact will bring.
And then it was time for the technical presentations. They were all good, they were all interesting, they all advanced human knowledge a bit. They also mostly shared an underlying structure, which I’ll return to in a moment. And then it was the turn of Amy O’Mahoney (a PhD student, I think) to speak on ‘The merit order effect of wind’. Amy’s presentation began with a kind of apology: an apology that her results didn’t have the same clarity that some of the preceding presentations had shown. That, she said, was because it’s so much harder to get convincing results from real data.
And there we have it. Amy was analyzing data from the real world. The shared theme of most of the other presentations was ‘I made some assumptions, I designed a computer model, and the computer model gave me result X’.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with that sort of study. But that pervasive theme revealed a couple of things that are wrong in the state of Smart Energy today:
  • Firstly, that there are a lot of critically important research topics (for example, really fundamental things like the demand profile of electric vehicle ownership) that are really at a very early stage. There’s a lot of ground to cover, to get from where we are, to the kind of energy sustainability and security that we want. It’s not clear that we’ve got enough time left in which to cover the ground.
  • Secondly, that a lot of studies are restricted to the domain of computer modelling because the real-world impact of trying things out for real would be unacceptable. People won’t accept being in a trial that might leave them with an uncharged electric car in the morning, or that might give them a power cut at prime TV time.
Pat Rabbitte was right: the theoretical research is important, but what matters to people is their exposure to real-world austerity measures. But there’s the conundrum: if we don’t get more government support for real-world research trials (potentially with vote-losing real-world impacts), we can all look forward, referendum or no, to the kind of energy austerity that I remember as a kid in the 1960s and 70s.

No comments:

Post a Comment