Is the future smart grid driven by the needs of ‘stay-at-home pets’?

Will air conditioned homes for pets determine the future of the smart grid?

Australia’s CSIRO’s hosted the Future Grid Forum, a scenario planning exercise which set out “to inform and inspire a national conversation and provide a way forward for the sector, its stakeholders and, most importantly, all Australians”.

The exercise examined the implications of climate change, peak demand, a possible new model for future energy and the ‘looming death spiral’ of utilities.

Four scenarios were proposed for the 2050 “that have far-reaching implications for the current and future electricity supply chain and would alter the electricity system in Australia”.

These included, according to the Climate Spectator: set and forget or maintaining the status quo – where consumers continue to rely on utilities; an increase in the number of prosumer – where consumers actively design or customise solutions; going off-grid; and a scenario where renewables thrive and storage plays a large part in entire electricity system.

With a strong focus on technologies and how they would facilitate these scenarios – discussions focused on combinations of automated devices, renewable generation, micro-grids, electric vehicles and battery storage.

According to Dr Yoland Strengers, who wrote the article for Climate Spectator, while the future seems to hold a lot of promise, perhaps a bigger question that should be asked is ‘what does the future look like in 35 years time?’

Strengers argues that we “forget how intimately entwined energy systems are with changing expectations, domestic technologies and everyday practices. We are invited to forget that the very problems the Future Smart Grid seeks to address are in fact an outcome of changing ways of life.”

She uses the increasing use of household air considtioning as an example, saying that the use of residential air conditioning has more than doubled over the the first decade of the 21st century, “leading to increases in electricity prices resulting from rising peak demand on hot summer days.” Her point is that “one of the most often-cited reasons given to justify the need for the future smart grid is increased air-conditioning peak demand – that is, changing expectations for cooling. Our energy system is getting a shake up because of changing ways of life.”

Her predictions of what life in Australia will be like in 35-years makes for interesting reading.

Strenger says that the number of stay-at-home pets is increasing worldwide. “There are 4.2 million dogs and 3.3 million cats, and of these 92% of cats and 76% of dogs are kept exclusively or partly indoors. Simultaneously, pets are becoming increasingly humanised. Dogs and cats go to grooming salons, play iPad games, eat ‘gourmet’ meats, and have their own fashion accessories, electric toys and heated mats. Pet care is a booming and growing business: in the United States alone, the industry is worth $US50 billion, having almost doubled in a decade.”

This ‘humanisation’ of pets is leading to increased use of power to heat or air condition kennels or room in which pets are kept during the day. In 2013, E.ON released a study in which is was revealed that 52% of UK dog and cat owners increase the temperature in their homes for their pets when they leave the home.

“One reasonable prediction for the future is therefore that stay-at-home pets could have their own heated/cooled indoor environments by 2050,” Strenger reveals.

What is the impact on the future smart grid? “Several things. If houses are thermally regulated 24/7 (for animals and humans), or if stay-at-home pets have ‘extra’ heating and cooling, this could contribute to a flattening of peak demand, and/or a possible increase in average (daily) demand.”

Strenger is quick to point out that her assumptions are based on a cursory examination of past and current trends. She believes that other trends, such as the increase in stay-at-home childcare and increasing number of people who work from home could impact the design of the future smart grid. “Nonetheless, this scenario is no more fantastical, reliable or rigorous than scenarios which propose ways in which future energy technologies will unfold.”

Strenger believes, “the point is not to accurately predict the future, but to plan for possible scenarios. The inherent uncertainty and changeability of everyday life points towards a need for adaptable, resilient and flexible power systems than can cope with different possibilities.”