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José Ignacio Pérez Arriaga, author of White Paper on Electricity Generation in Spain: "Political will is needed to roll out smart grids"

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In this exclusive interview with Renewable Energy Magazine's Spanish sister publication, Energías Renovables, José Ignacio Pérez Arriaga discusses the ins and outs of smart grids and their importance to developing a more sustainable energy model in the future. A member of Spain’s Royal Academy of Engineering and Director of the BP Chair on Sustainable Development at the Pontificia de Comillas University in Madrid (Spain), José Ignacio Pérez Arriaga, who is currently lecturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, defines a smart grid as " a power grid for both distribution (lower voltage, connected directly to end users) and transmission (higher voltage) that enables all those involved in the electricity system (generators, consumers, operators, energy service companies) to interact using the most cutting-edge communications and control technologies in a way that ensures the electricity supply is as efficient, reliable and has the least environmental impact as possible".

Interview date: March, 2010

Interviewer: Pedro Fernandez

Are these grids the best way to manage the energy we generate and avoid wasting it?

Existing grids already ensure the energy produced is not lost. However, it is hoped that future grids will manage energy flows more efficiently. For example, by informing consumers or the energy service companies they contract about electricity prices at any specific time, or about possible incidents in the operation of the system to permit them to act accordingly. Or, they will manage the process of recharging large numbers of electric or hybrid vehicles plugged into the grid, and will also manage the supply of electricity from these vehicles to the system where applicable.

Is it difficult to construct a smart electricity grid?

The required communications, measurement and control technologies are already available, although undoubtedly there will be improvements in the future. What is needed is political will to put this in place, appropriate regulation to ensure viable business models can be developed, and a clear definition of the role of each party and technical standards that allow flexibility to introduce the necessary changes.

The goal of creating urban smart grids is to create a kind of global super grid. Does the issue of connecting countries to each other pose an additional challenge?

Urban electricity grids are distribution networks and therefore, it does not make sense to propose connecting these grids in the future, because they already are today. Transmission networks already seamlessly connect all these networks and all the system players together from Lisbon to Budapest. What is needed is an interconnected transmission grid that is strong enough to smooth out the intermittency of large-scale wind and solar energy generation across widely scattered parts of Europe, or to harness abundant but remotely located renewable resources such as offshore wind farms in the North Sea or solar arrays in North African. This will require considerable investment in the transmission grid, since the existing grid is not up to this task.

Do you think this objective is really feasible if the required support and technology is available?

Smart grids are perfectly feasible. What is more complicated is to make full use of them to move towards a more sustainable energy model, with widespread electricity generation from renewable sources and efficiently managed demand.

If it is as simple and as beneficial as they say, why wait to roll out these smart grids? What is the key to these grids being built? In other words, what are we waiting for?

The technology is available. As I said before, it requires the political will and regulation to establish an attractive business model.

Do you think this objective is really feasible if the required support and technology is available?

Smart grids are perfectly feasible. What is more complicated is to make full use of them to move towards a more sustainable energy model, with widespread electricity generation from renewable sources and efficiently managed demand.

Is our energy future a super renewable energy grid interconnecting the smart grids of all cities?

The future of energy is an economic model with very low greenhouse gas emissions, which requires access to an electrical system with virtually no carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. This represents a clear change of tack from the current energy model. Smart grids should facilitate this change.

What do you think about the possibility of renewable energy sources contributing at least 90% of the energy produced in the world in the future? Do you see this as feasible?

“At least” 90% is not bad to begin with, right? Seriously though, science informs us that in 2050, industrialised countries must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a fifth of what is emitted now. These cuts must be made to avoid greater problems. Several in-depth studies, such as the one I have been involved in with the European Climate Foundation and presented to the European Commission in April, show that this is possible. And for that we need sufficient smart electricity grids.

For additional information:

European Climate Foundation's Roadmap 2050

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