Japan’s Digital Grid Scheme

Japanese consortium aims to transform the country’s centralized grid into islands of interconnected cells

4 min read
Japan’s Digital Grid Scheme
Illustration by Jesse Lefkowitz

Japan’s plan to phase out its nearly 50 gigawatts of nuclear capacity over the next two to three decades has opened a window for renewable energy in the country. But swapping wind and solar power for that nuclear generation, which produced 30 percent of Japan’s electricity prior to the 2011 Fukushima crisis, could also lead to major disruptions in energy supply, warns Rikiya Abe, a University of Tokyo professor. The problem, says Abe, who came to academia after working in the electrical generation industry for 30 years, is that Japan’s grid—and indeed that of many developed countries—is set up to be centrally controlled. The utilities have to carefully regulate the grid’s frequency and voltage by maintaining a fine balance between power generation and changing demand. A diverse group of large Japanese firms is starting to explore a solution—a gradual reorganization of the country’s power system so that in the end it resembles the Internet, routers and all.

“The present synchronized system has served us well,” says Abe. “But when you introduce various sources of renewable energy, they will certainly increase fluctuations in the system, until at some point they become unmanageable.” What we need, he says, “is a shift from central to decentralized control, with generated power being segmented and widely distributed.”

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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