Robots that fight fires, cars that drive themselves, clothes that prevent illness—are they the stuff of science fiction? Or are they more likely than we think? “Life in 2030,” a one-hour special from the radio series Engineers of the New Millennium, explores the latest discoveries to give listeners an idea of how technology will shape our lives in the not-too-distant future.
Danish Island Tests Smart Grid
Phil Ross: And we’re returning to earth from a space-based power source…
Susan Hassler: …to a small Danish island in the Baltic Sea. It’s called Bornholm.
Susan Hassler: Site of the largest medieval fortress in northern Europe, this rocky island is a testing ground for the future.
Phil Ross: Bornholm has established a smart grid. That’s when the utility company can talk to your refrigerator and your dishwasher and tell them to stop wasting so much electricity.
Susan Hassler: And there’s no electricity to waste when your island’s sole connection to power snaps.
Maja Bendtsen: We have only one sea cable connecting this grid area to other grid areas. We have the sea cable to—to Sweden.
Susan Hassler: Maja Bendtsen is an engineer who works for the Bornholm utility company Oestkraft. In 2004, when an anchor snapped the undersea power cable, it took nearly two months to fix, and Oestkraft scrambled to keep the lights on.
Phil Ross: The cable broke again in 2005 and 2010, and this time the utilities couldn’t blame it on squirrels.
Susan Hassler: Maybe porpoises.
Phil Ross: But the utility and the Bornholm government have invested heavily in all sorts of renewable energy sources in the past decade.
Susan Hassler: That includes wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuel plants that burn straw. In fact, Denmark has big energy plans.
Maja Bendtsen: We have a strategy in Denmark that by 2050 we are going to be fossil-free. And already in 2020, we will have that 50 percent of our annual power consumption is produced by wind turbines. Today we have around 25. We are in many senses a picture of the future power system in Denmark.
Susan Hassler: Bornholm is a test bed for future energy production and distribution. And they’re taking the ultimate step by building a smart grid they call the EcoGrid.
Phil Ross: Let’s think about what makes the smart grid smart.
Susan Hassler: We’ll check in at an old one-bedroom house in Bornholm’s largest town, Rønne, to find out. Oestkraft bought the house last year and retrofitted it to demonstrate how the EcoGrid will work. Power engineer Mark Moseholt tells us about it.
Mark Moseholt: We bought this villa to give an issue to the people: How can we make a smart house in an existing building? Let’s go inside and take a look.
Mark Moseholt: Let’s see some of the technical solutions that we have. If you, for example, open a window—there‘s no heat on—but if you open it, there’s a switch here that says “window is open.” Then the computer knows, I will turn off the heat. You don’t have to turn it off. This is the meter. Somebody might call it a smart meter. To say it in another word, this one knows the clock, knows the time. The old ones didn’t know what time the energy was used. This one, every 5 minutes looks at and analyzes the energy consumption.
Susan Hassler: The EcoGrid is a bit different from your run-of-the-mill smart grid because it continually checks the market price of electricity.
Phil Ross: So if the price is high, it tries to reduce consumption.
Mark Moseholt: This one here communicates with the Internet so if we have a high price period, we can tell the heat pump, “Turn off space heating during a period, until we get a certain low temperature.” And then it will stop.
Susan Hassler: When the EcoGrid project got going last year, the engineers thought they’d be able to control all kinds of household appliances that way. But even so-called smart appliances all use different protocols for communicating.
Maja Bendtsen: It’s not that easy to—to attach equipment or—or home automation to existing equipment as I had anticipated. There are many different wireless communication protocols.
Phil Ross: Sounds like a party where everyone speaks a different language.
Susan Hassler: Exactly. So Oestkraft decided to start with just heat pumps and may eventually expand to other smart appliances.
Phil Ross: Meantime, people on Bornholm are signing up to participate in the project.
Martin Hansen: My name is Martin Hansen, and I’m a real estate agent. And I signed up for the EcoGrid project because in the future, probably we don’t have that much power supplies. It’s because I care about the future. And see my son is probably going to have some kids as well and in the future where are they going to get all the power from?
Susan Hassler: The smart grid equipment installed in Hansen’s house includes a small electronic meter that connects via the Internet to the utility company.
Phil Ross: Another wireless sensor controls the electric heater. Hansen can log into his Oestkraft account to see how much electricity he’s using. And what does he discover?
Martin Hansen: Ehhh…that we use quite a lot.
Susan Hassler: With the EcoGrid officially turned “on,” 1200 households across the island will have their heat pumps or electric heating systems controlled by automated software that reacts to the market price of electricity.
Phil Ross: And each household will decide how much control the smart grid has.
Martin Hansen: On the device I have in here I can go in and say, Now I want the power back. And I can go in and change it if I think it’s too cold. So it’s not a problem.
Susan Hassler: Control of another kind is our focus as we leave this Baltic Sea island and return to the streets of the U.S.A….
Written and reported by Jean Kumagai and Prachi Patel