Against the backdrop of volatile prices and increased pressure for the adoption of renewable sources, the challenges facing the energy sector have never been greater. These extend beyond those directly engaged in the field to also have wide implications for Government and the Public Sector.
Location and use of geographical thinking is often the central co-ordinating component in this complex system of networks. It is this that allows the connections between numerous stakeholders and a vast array of technologies to enable us to form a holistic perspective. It brings a platform for common understanding and straightforward implementation.
Throughout 2015, the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) is exploring five themes where the geographic information industry is having an impact. The connection between all of these is a need for security and resilience. The first of these themes – “Smart Energy” – was the focus of an event held in Edinburgh in March 2015, which brought together a wide range of stakeholders. It provided fascinating insight into the opportunities and challenges for use of geographic information for Smart Energy applications.
Chris Stark, Head of Energy for The Scottish Government, has a clear view of the equilibrium that policy is seeking to strike. He describes this as a trilemma – the need to balance the three objectives of managing carbon emissions, security of supply and consumer costs. This is a particular challenge when set against the context of an aging infrastructure that requires significant levels of investment, and increasing demand for energy and a changing global supply market.
In Scotland there have been notable changes in the distribution of supply. Wind energy is increasingly the predominant component of renewable energy, dwarfing the contribution of a legacy of hydroelectricity. It is anticipated that during 2015, Scotland will be providing the equivalent of 50 per cent of domestic energy demand from renewable sources – with a target of 100 per cent by 2020.
This is the paradigm shift that The Scottish Government is shaping policy around. New insight from organisations such as the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI) is influencing this. Andy Kerr, director at ECCI, describes that: “We do not lack good ideas. What we lack is the practical delivery of these ideas, at scale”.
In an era of increasing access to data there are new resources becoming available to assist in energy planning. Scotland’s Heat Map (heatmap.scotland.gov.uk) is just one such resource that is currently being used to understand network capacity against predicted demand. This is highlighting the constraints of the current network infrastructure whilst being used as a tool for master planning and development.
However, Andy Kerr states that trying to make meaningful use of data remains hugely challenging An example of this is the difficulty in bringing together disparate datasets from across the private and public sectors. Energy usage data from suppliers is often not available due to issues of privacy – but without this, Local Government have constraints on their ability to plan development. Adequate anonymisation and release of data, with a co-ordinated approach between all stakeholders is not yet happening.
An Integrated Approach
Supply and production are themselves subject to innovation in new technology. There is no longer a straightforward top-down picture of a few large operators generating at scale, but a landscape of distributed, small energy generators. Smart Energy systems will be a continuous retrofitting and re-imagining of the current infrastructure. Planning for this new technology is key, from a local urban level to a regional level with broader dimensions. Understanding of the landscape and the potential to support new infrastructure is vitally important.
David Howard, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, believes that although energy is a complex system, we also have to accept that it is just one of many inter‑connected complex systems. For example, others may include food production, water management, even the economy and society itself. Effective decision making requires an understanding of the entire eco-system. Making decisions in isolation runs the risk of causing unintended consequences.
How people value space
Geographic modelling of the ‘energy-scape’ aids in understanding the total system. This develops a record of an area’s complete energy requirements and potential to meet them. The resultant cost of this can then be related to stakeholders’ willingness to meet this. This is evaluated based on analysing their perceptions of existing facilities and services, essentially how people value space relative to their home, work or school: all inherently geographic questions.
Renewable sources of energy by their very nature are subject to fluctuations in supply. The flexibility to manage these mixed sources and predict supply is critical. An example of an integrated approach to managing the supply network is evolving through Smart Grid technologies, the most visible consumer element of this being the Smart Meter.
Testament to the requirements for geographic information to deliver, Ordnance Survey has been heavily involved in support of the Smart Meter roll-out. Martin Shaw, Utility Sector Lead, describes the part played by the UK National Mapping Agency in ensuring the roll-out programme was economically achievable by removing waste (through abortive or repetitive visits) through the simple use of data modelling to identify optimum installation programmes depending on the location, type of building and network connection.
The Smart Meter as a tool for the consumer has perhaps missed opportunities in the UK, according to Andy Kerr at ECCI, with often an unfriendly interface and lack of opportunity to access data directly. As a tool for the industry though, it provides highly valuable information which can be used to understand the network in real-time.
One of the biggest drivers of Smart Metering is decarbonisation. The distributed sources of renewables, such as solar panels, often now need to pass surplus energy back to the grid. This is fundamentally changing the way the grid works. Smart Metering allows suppliers to influence consumer behaviour and bring them into the process of managing demand. Geospatial technology is an integrated part of network models, enabling the co-ordinated usage of meters and sensors to aid demand forecasting.
The citizen considerations of smart energy are far beyond the data provided to maintain our networks. As more data is collected and visible in decision making, the increasing transparency agenda is creating a demand for this data to be open and available. The use of online display of geographic information can be an engaging platform to encourage public participation.
Projects such as the San Francisco Solar Map (http://sfenergymap.org/) and closer to home the Glasgow Energy App (https://www.glasgowenergyapp.org/) are being used to both inform behaviour as well as gather valuable data from the public. Paul Georgie, of consultancy GeoGeo, emphasises that in order for this engagement to be successful that well designed solutions are important. There are also opportunities for new visualisation technology such as augmented reality, gaming technology (http://www.cityzen‑smartcity.eu) and applications such as home based sensors having the potential to help citizens engage with a low-carbon lifestyle.
Of course, it is not only transparency and empowerment policy that are important to the citizen in the energy debate. More critically, the politics around fuel poverty are increasingly having an elevated profile. Fuel poverty is generally defined as the need to spend more than 10 per cent of income to maintain a stable and warm household temperature.
Fuel poverty is not always related to income poverty, but also to poor energy efficiency in homes. The UK has amongst the highest rates of fuel poverty in Europe. Research carried out by Ryan Walker, University of Ulster, identifies new area based approaches for targeted improvement in housing stock.
Ryan describes that this method to use geographic information to pinpoint these areas allows economies of scale in making interventions, whilst providing opportunities for urban regeneration.
In all areas however, there remains a need to ensure that the citizen is informed and has a good geographical understanding. This is required whether to apply knowledge in future technologies to drive a low-carbon vision, or to play a role as an active citizen. Prominent Scottish science communicator Prof Stuart Monro calls for continued investment in geographical education. Location technology and sense of place are key components in delivering Smart Energy solutions.
The Role for the Geographic Information Industry
Of course, use of geographic information in areas such as energy is nothing new. Established over 25 years ago to promote the benefits of geographic information, the Association for Geographic Information (AGI) is now seeing an unprecedented interest in the industry. In the UK, the industry was estimated to be worth around £1.23bn in 2011.
The areas in whicπh Geographic Information is having an impact will continue to grow. The increasing emphasis on Future Cities, Big Data, Collaborative Information Management, Open / Transparency and Location Policy are all major issues in 2015. The industry has much to bring to these challenges, both to inform policy makers and play a part in solutions for a low-carbon future.