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Net managers sometimes think on too large a scale - NRC Guest Blog by Robin Smale

Gepubliceerd op
28 februari 2019

This blog post is part of our new series of Dutch blog posts on important issues from the field of environmental policy on NRC online.

You can find the original post (in Dutch) here.

Wind and solar energy are not always available, while our demand for energy is constant, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. What is more, domestic energy demands peak during the dark days of winter. And as a result, we often have to turn to expensive fossil fuels.

The electricity grid is already under pressure as it is because of all the solar panels on roofs, the increase in the number of electric cars and because we cook more often with electricity and heat our houses with electricity. At the same time, supply and demand must be balanced.

The challenge for our electricity grid is gigantic. How can we solve this ‘net balance’ without importing coal-based energy, paying billions for extra electric cables, needing gas plants as back-ups or resorting to other expensive or CO2-intensive tricks?

Coordination

An important part of the solution should come from individual households. They can help to better coordinate the supply and demand for energy. The social science research by the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University has shown that people are quite willing to help.

An example of this willingness is the pilot project Jouw Energie Moment, which shows that people understand complex energy concepts and that this knowledge – sometimes encouraged by special price incentives – can lead to a change in behaviour. Participants in this project, who realise that energy is more sustainable and cheaper when the sun shines, are happy to do their laundry during the day instead of in the evening when there’s a peak in energy consumption. At the request of the participants, a clever algorithm was introduced for energy-hungry heat pumps.

The realization that timing energy consumption is important for sustainability is a fundamental turning point in how we use energy. In order to help people adopt a new mind-set, they have to learn to see the full picture. The idea of being ‘sustainably self-sufficient’ – being able to answer your own energy demands with green energy – helps.

Clever solutions for net balance and sustainable self-sufficiency are also being realised in cooperative efforts. The Lokale Energie Monitor 2018 refers to ‘numerous examples of cooperative charging stations, neighbourhood storage, digital energy trade among residents and new earning models based on flexibility services’.

Not flexible

Energy professionals like net managers do not yet agree on the contribution that residents can make as ‘co-managers’ of the energy system. Don’t bother residents with this, they often say, because the net balance issue is too complicated, uninteresting and, besides, people aren’t flexible in their energy consumption. Who would want to cook at night for a discount of just a few cents? They also claim that we can solve a large part of the problem by storing solar energy in large batteries, storing wind energy in, for example, hydrogen and buying energy from neighbouring countries.

However, this preference for large-scale, technical solutions fails to consider the substantial contribution that people can and are willing to make to the net balance for the sake of sustainability. The net balance issue is inherently connected to the energy transition path we have chosen. Individuals are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

This approach will save us from losing the economic and environmental gains made by decentralised energy production and conservation on unnecessary expenses for a more powerful grid and generating and importing CO2-intensive energy.