“We have to manage the existing infrastructures better and not expand the hardware”
Information and Communication technology will take on a decisive role in energy efficient buildings. For João Peças Lopes, the Director of INESC Porto, the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering of Porto, the success of electric mobility is dependent on a greater investment in the area.
The Smart Portugal 2020 Report has shown that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) have huge potential in helping to reach the Kyoto targets. Do you agree with this interpretation?
Yes, I whole heartedly agree. In order to increase energy efficiency, reduce consumption and become more intelligent with our energy use, we need information systems that can help us find the best solutions. Solutions are needed for industrial operating processes, the running of buildings and energy systems as a whole. Energy systems are very dependent on the fossil fuels that are increasing our CO2 emissions; therefore, only with the help of new solutions will it be possible to reduce our emissions.
So information is the great weapon, is it?
It is the exploration of this information to find solutions that can improve how the systems function.
Is it worth the investment?
Yes, I can safely say that it is worth the investment, because it normally leads to significant profits. There are probably two ways of making the processes more efficient. One would be to invest more in heavy infrastructure; this usually requires a significant investment and it can become a financial burden. Another way would be to invest in an information system capable of intelligently controlling and managing an infrastructure. This is the cheaper option.
Nowadays there is a tendency to try to reduce investments in large infrastructures and instead, make the most of existing ones. This is with the aid of investments in “intelligence” that could lead to a system that is globally more efficient and therefore brings interesting profits from an economic point of view.
On top of this, investment in heavy infrastructures can be difficult to complete due to environmental restrictions. Therefore, we have to improve the management of our existing infrastructures and not expand the hardware. This is the intelligent approach.
With reference to the relationship between energy efficiency and ICT, which would you say are the areas with the most potential for development?
Buildings, for example. We need more efficient buildings; the majority of buildings are not adequately prepared. To make buildings more energy efficient, a passive investment in infrastructure is necessary, in thermal insulation, for example. Then comes the role of the information systems, they make a series of decisions in order to manage these spaces more actively. They make decisions, for example, on everything linked to domotics, the management of lighting, heating and cooling systems and ventilation units, etc.
The energy bill for the public administration is estimated at 500 million Euros. What can be done to reduce this?
In the existing buildings there is just one option: to try to be more efficient with energy usage. Lighting and heating and cooling systems, for example, are huge energy consumers, and are a good place to start. We need to be more insightful and find solutions that can reduce the energy bill without lowering the levels of comfort or the quality of the environment.
Do you think that the public administration is investing enough in this area?
They need to put a lot more into it.
What are the most common errors?
“Errors” do not actually exist. The problem is that a large part of the States’ infrastructures are dozens or even hundreds of years old and they were not built taking into consideration energy efficiency. Nowadays, there are intelligent ways of solving these problems, providing adequate lighting and finding ways to improve heating and cooling systems in buildings that were built without these issues in mind.
The Government is focusing on electric mobility. This is going to bring new challenges in relation to network managing. How can ICT help with this transition and this change in the mobility paradigm?
If we continue to develop this idea without considering the management of the infrastructure of the electricity system, we will not be able to make the transition. INESC Porto recently completed a study of Portugal. The study included a survey assessing the potential behavior of future electric car drivers, looking at their usage, their mobility patterns and how they could charge their batteries. People will be travelling during the day and at the end of the day, after working hours, they will want to charge their car. This time window will be between 6 pm and 8 pm. This slot also coincides with the peak period of electricity consumption in Portugal. This is very significant.
And causes a system overload….
It causes a system overload in the infrastructure of the network and an increase in the demand for electricity during this period. In the study we looked at the scenario that 10 percent of the cars in Portugal were swopped for electric cars. Just 10 percent! This would mean an increase of 1200MW of energy consumption at peak times; this is a 14 or 15 percent increase. The electricity generating system is not prepared for this. Therefore, the development of this concept implies promoting coordinated intelligent battery charging that is centrally managed. This will allow for nocturnal charging with the guarantee that the driver would have a fully charged car in the morning. This will require the development of an information system with a strong telecommunications component and a series of completely new applications that can manage the integration of these new energy consumers into the electricity system. We have developed an electricity system aimed at satisfying the demand; but now there is a group of new clients and they are all extremely flexible. I can alter the charging rate of the batteries and guarantee that by the end of the charging time they will be fully charged and able to respond to the mobility needs of the driver.
This managing system would stagger the charging?
Exactly. This will mean developing a series of concepts and a control and management architecture that does not currently exist. This will have to be in conjunction with a communication infrastructure and a set of intelligent interfaces, which have also not yet been designed. Infrastructures that are currently being constructed do not have any of this. It is true that we are taking our first steps and there is a real desire to promote and push electric mobility forward. However, we cannot forget that in terms of the functioning of the system as a whole, we have to be prepared for this change. If not, we will create more setbacks for the development of the concept.
But will this not mean an increase in the consumption of fossil fuels?
Not necessarily. If we continue to invest in renewable energy we could use this to meet the demands of the new consumers. In order to efficiently manage the global system I will need to move consumption to nocturnal periods. This would mean I can use hydroelectricity or wind power.
But even resorting to fossil fuels, the process would still be more globally efficient. A conventional vehicle with an internal combustion engine has an efficiency of around 20 percent. If, instead of using this I use, for example, a thermal power plant with a combined cycle gas turbine, even taking into account all of the losses associated with transport, energy distribution, battery charging and the use of electric energy engines, I would still get a global efficiency of around 30 percent. Therefore, if the market is directed towards giving priority to combined-cycle power plants, I can be more globally efficient by using electric mobility even using fossil fuels. These combined-cycle power plants really are resourceful from the point of view of global efficiency and for the volume of emissions that they release into the atmosphere.
Where do you think we should place our bets here in Portugal?
We have to find technological niche markets where we can make a sustainable and successful impact. We therefore need to have strong expertise in research and development (R&D) and then transfer this knowledge to industry. If not, it would just not be worth making the investment. From a technological point of view, Portugal is capable of working in these areas because it has a science and technology system that is ready to support it. This system also knows how to make the most of the policies that the government has outlined for improvement in R&D in these areas. These technological niches could be, for example, everything linked to the management of networks and mobility. We already have the competencies for this and the actual industrial fabric has a long tradition of working in these areas. The fusion of capabilities and competencies will allow us to put solutions with added value on the market with unique abilities that can meet the demands of the international market.