"Prosumers" pave path to energy self-reliance for sustainable living

An emerging generation of renewable energy users are producing and consuming their own power, as the vision of a zero-emissions future becomes mainstream.

A growing group of "prosumers" — renewable energy users who produce and consume their own power — are driving demand for solutions that support self-reliant living, cutting their own electricity bills while helping society mitigate climate change via reduced carbon emissions.

But prosumers aren't roughing it. The availability of connected solutions, which can remotely manage energy usage, control heating or even launch a favorite playlist, means that self-reliant homes are rapidly becoming venues for more comfortable and convenient lifestyles.

It's all part of the rise of the "clean energy economy," where intelligent buildings equipped with photovoltaic (PV) cells and turnkey solar power storage solutions are enabling families and businesses to achieve energy self-sufficiency.

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ABB at Light & Building 2018

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Today's prosumers may be early adopters, but the movement they're leading is no small niche. By 2020, according to research from IHS Markit™, more than 25 TWh of electricity will be generated and self-consumed on site in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, in aggregate.

The technologies and products propelling this emerging prosumer revolution will be in the spotlight at the Light + Building trade fair this week in Frankfurt, Germany. There, innovations from ABB will provide proof points that energy users can increasingly control their own destinies, via solutions that align with the event's major theme of sustainablility and intelligent energy management.

ABB demonstrates real-world energy self-reliance

ABB is already delivering on the prosumer promise in the northern lowlands of Switzerland. Eight families are living in a 100 percent energy self-sufficient "house of the future" built by Umwelt Arena Spreitenbach in partnership with ABB. Solar panels covering the roof and facade generate direct current (DC), which is converted to alternating current (AC) for household use by 26 ABB solar inverters. In one hour, the system harnesses enough energy to power the building for a full day, with the excess stored in batteries for later use.

In the United Arab Emirates, ABB is helping harness the power of the sun for Dubai's first all-electric city. ABB has supplied 400 inverters to harvest solar energy for 400 villas in what's been named the Sustainable City, the region's first fully sustainable community. The Sustainable City will house some 2,000 residents within an area of approximately 500,000 square meters. The panels and ABB inverters will ultimately generate 10 megawatt-peak (MWp) of power on private and public buildings within the city.

Projects like these presage what prosumers can do with technology that's available today.

For prosumers ready to turn their dreams of energy independence into reality, ABB has combined the solar inverter with energy storage capability, in a new, modular system called REACT 2. (REACT stands for Renewable Energy Accumulator and Conversion Technology.) REACT 2 does dual duty to support up to 90 percent energy self-sufficiency: The inverter portion of the system delivers AC for household power, and it also sends excess electricity to the unit's lithium-ion battery, available with storage capacities of from 4 kWh to 12 kWh, where it's stored for later use.

In real-world operation, excess electricity is typically produced by rooftop solar cells during peak hours of sunlight. It's stored by the REACT 2 for use after dark, during the night, and early in the morning. The upshot is that prosumers are never without energy.

The security of "always on" power is one reason why the majority of prosumer don't go entirely "off the grid." Maintaining a connection back to the utility supports excess demand that can't be met by self production, provides backup in the case of local equipment failure and enables prosumers to sell excess power back to the utility.

Self sufficiency is more than technology — it's a lifestyle

To complete the ecosystem required to elevate the smart home into a comfortable venue for flexible living, self-reliant energy systems are supported by ABB Ability™, ABB’s industry-leading portfolio of digital solutions. For example, REACT 2 continuously transmits energy status and usage data to ABB-free@home®, the open home automation platform that's part of ABB Ability™.

ABB-free@home®, in turn, handles automated operation of numerous other in-home systems — everything from heating and air conditioning to blinds and lighting. The garage isn't forgotten; ABB-free@home® can also control electric vehicle charging solutions such as the new ABB AC wallbox. There's even a mobile app, enabling residents to control their entire home on the go.

Going forward, the energy prosumer movement is poised to gain ground through the growing market penetration of the new generation of solar power storage solutions such as REACT 2.

The biggest factor driving adoption is the decreasing cost of both solar panels and inverters. The price drops are driven by the maturation of the relevant technologies and by governmental policies being implemented in many countries to encourage increased use of renewables.

For example, the SunShot Initiative was launched by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2011, with the goal of driving down the costs of PV installations by 75% by 2020. The effort is working. Last September, the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory reported that it had achieved its utility-scale PV goal of $0.06 per kilowatt hour three years earlier than expected. (Residential and commercial solar costs have also come down, to $0.16 and $0.11, respectively. That's well on the way to the 2020 targets of $0.10 and $0.08, respectively.)

In Germany, the Renewable Energy Act (Erneuerbare Energien Gesetz, or EEG) is encouraging rapid adoption of renewables, including solar power.

The European Union, via the European Parliament Think Tank, is calling for a common definition of energy prosumers and for legislation to encourage investment in self-generation capacity.

And the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SOFE) believes that, by 2050, it will be possible to meet around 20 percent of current electricity demand in Switzerland through PV systems. (SOFE sees solar hot water and auxiliary home heating systems as a particularly attractive option, noting that it believes it would eventually be possible to meet the heating requirements of all Swiss households through the use of solar collectors combined with improved energy efficiency.)

Viewed collectively, the introduction of increasingly advanced solar storage technologies, the construction of more energy self-reliant buildings and the growing governmental focus on regulatory support all make one thing abundantly clear: 2018 is shaping up to be the year of the energy prosumer.

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