Digital energy transition

Smart grids, smart meters and smart homes: Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy leads the way.

Energiewende digital© Vencav/

Before the Easter holiday, Hurricane Niklas swept across the country, sending wind power infeed to new record levels. In short order, the eclipse more than ten days previous caused a large fluctuation in the electricity infeed of solar PV installations. As these two extreme events highlight, the yield from renewable energies is volatile by nature. To be fit for the future, our energy system must take up this challenge. It needs to keep getting smarter, including infrastructure. From the solar PV installation reporting high yields to the washing machine or the industrial compressed air system waiting to start up until flexible tariffs fall due to grid oversupply, digital technologies afford a whole range of new opportunities and possibilities. And the Energy Transition is what drives digitalisation in the energy sector.

What demands must the infrastructure meet?

A good example of this are distribution grids that connect with every electricity consumer in Germany, from the single-person household to the large-scale industrial enterprise. The Energy Transition has placed heavier demands on these grids: Once, they only used to distribute electricity from power stations to consumers across the country, now, 80 per cent of renewable energy installations, such as solar modules or wind parks, feed electricity into them decentrally, ‘bottom up’. So the grids are no longer a one-way street: Their job now is also to transport electricity in the opposite direction. In future, they will also be able to offset the volatile yield from renewable energies with needs-based power consumption. Storage facilities and electric car batteries will be increasingly integrated and will be able to both take off and supply electricity, depending on needs. So that they can do this reliably and efficiently, distribution systems must become more intelligent – which is why they are called smart grids.

Together instead of apart - thanks to digital technologies

In the smart grid, the components of the energy system communicate with each other - from generation to transport, storage and distribution to consumption. The photovoltaic installation, the electric car or the air-conditioning plant in an industrial enterprise will not just be connected; they themselves will become components of the integrated data network and energy grid thanks to the plug & play principle, completely without having to install costly drivers and programmes. They can exchange information smoothly via digital interfaces. This can bring about a fundamental shift: Supply is geared to demand, but demand also adapts to supply thanks to intelligent and flexible consumers.

Hanover Fair: Industry 4.0 and the energy transition

The answer to the question of how we shall live, work and produce in future in Germany will largely be supplied by the process of digitalisation, as Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Sigmar Gabriel pointed out at the 2015 Hanover Fair, which centred two weeks ago on the issue of interlinking people, machines and industrial processes through digital technologies – in short: Industry 4.0. "Industry 4.0 is also essential for making the Energy Transition a success," the Federal Minister said.

This is why businesses in the electrical, electronic and information technology sector see the Energy Transition as an opportunity: A recent survey conducted by the Association for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies among its member companies found that the Energy Transition with the attendant issues of smart grids and energy efficiency afforded the largest locational potential for six out of ten respondents. Companies in the energy industry have also long recognised the importance of digitalisation. At the Hanover Fair, for example, Hildegard Müller, Chairwoman of the General Executive Management Board of the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), called the energy industry the "hub of digitalisation”. "The energy industry is already putting digitalisation into practice," she said. Due to their influence, energy companies were playing a major part in co-shaping digital networking across all sectors and links in the value chain.

Smart meters instead of electricity meters: Care before haste

Digitalisation is not just about integrating renewable energies into smart grids, though: Digital technologies will also play a major role in the other pillar of the Energy Transition - raising energy efficiency. Information and communication technologies (ICT) can, for example, convert the familiar electricity meters into smart meters. These do not just measure electricity consumption or the amount of electricity infeed for the next invoice; they also provide grid system operators with important information, so that these can synchronise production, grid load and consumption largely automatically with each other. In households, they can track how much electricity has been consumed when and where – which will motivate users to improve their energy efficiency. Applications for the networked house, the so-called smart home, where air-conditioning and heating systems regulate themselves and rationalise their own energy demand, for example, can be connected directly. Finally, smart meters can also spur competition in the power sector, because only if electricity consumption can be measured and invoiced exactly is it worthwhile for providers to design their range of products to meet more specific and individualised needs and to offer flexible tariffs. This way, digital technologies can help curb demand for costly electricity in peak load periods, relieve grid load and maintain a high level of supply security.

These applications will, however, also generate increased data traffic. Instead of annual metering, some measurements will be taken every quarter of an hour as a matter of course. The basic technical equipment must therefore meet high data protection and security requirements – so when developing this technology and deciding on its obligatory application, we need to put care before haste.

In Germany in future, it will only be possible to install smart meters that conform with the Protection Profiles and Technical Guidelines of the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI). This will ensure IT security and protection against hacker attacks.

Until BSI-certified systems are available, the respective state-of-the-art technology can be installed, that is, all the smart meters available on the market. In this transitional phase, valuable experience can be gained in pilot projects with the automated systems. Grandfathering provisions will help to avoid bad investments. Users will of course only be obliged to install BSI-certified technology.

How the Federal Economic Affairs Ministry promotes smart energy supply

The purpose of the new promotional competition, Showcase Smart Energy – Digital Agenda for the Energy Transition (SINTEG), launched by the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) in February (funding: EUR 80 million) is to demonstrate how smart grids can also function over a broad area and contribute to climate-friendly, secure and efficient energy supply even with periodical 100 per cent input from renewable energies. As part of the package of measures, Innovative Digitalisation of the German Economy, it makes up a major component of the Digital Agenda.

Under the technology programme, Autonomics for Industry 4.0, which began in the summer of 2014, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy also promotes innovations for the intelligent and efficient smart home. The key points of the package of regulations on smart grids published by the Ministry in February presents an outlook of future binding legislation for the application of modern metrology and control technology.