They’d love to communicate with each other, but they just don’t understand each other! In the future, millions of decentralized photovoltaic installations, battery storage systems, charging stations and heat pumps will have to be able to interact with each other in order to balance out the fluctuations in the supply and demand of electricity. But there are no standards that allow devices from different manufacturers to communicate with each other.
The user-friendliness for prosumers also leaves something to be desired. We spoke with IoT expert Marco Oesterlein about the issues with digitalization and how to solve them.
On a scale of one to ten, where would you say we are in terms of digitalization and energy transition?
I would say six, perhaps seven at the most. We’re basically entering the last third of the journey.
How can we reach ten? What are the biggest issues?
For many years now, I've been seeing a big problem with the standardization of scalable solutions. There’s a lack of standards, or even just de facto standards, to make photovoltaic systems and charging stations compatible. Instead, there are many proprietary solutions. Some companies have got together to develop customized solutions, but there are no standardized protocols in place. A major inverter manufacturer told me that they have deliberately decided against implementing standards so they can push their own solutions to the exclusion of other combinations.
Another big issue concerns grid connection. There is too much red tape. Utility companies and municipal utilities are getting crushed by requirements, standards and regulations. This is slowing the growth of renewables. In Germany, for example, the smart meter gateway won’t get rolled out until 2030, and the revised German Energy Industry Act still contains some obstacles.
What is your vision for the combination of PV systems, storage systems, charging stations and heat pumps, connected by a Home Energy Management System?
My vision would be to standardize and consolidate the market to increase the number of systems in the market. This means that solar specialists would need to make sure that the systems they’ve installed on the roofs work together so that electric cars can be charged with solar energy. These technologies need to be standardized, faster, they need to be more agile, and scalable.
How can we make this happen?
Every end customer and tradesperson has a preferred manufacturer. Trying to combine a certain inverter from one company with the heat pump of another is not necessarily possible.
What we need are consistent hardware standards for the protocols that, for example, PV systems use to communicate with energy management systems, and that are needed to connect a charging station. This is the only way we can integrate new charging station manufacturers into the energy management system at any time.
Only then can the whole variety of combinations be placed on the market. We know that the market will consolidate itself, new players will emerge while others disappear. A certain degree of flexibility is required in order to combine the most diverse constellations of products and product variants.
Manufacturers obviously prefer to keep things separate. How can we make common standards more appealing?
Automation technology provides some good examples – some four or five standards have become established here. This allows manufacturers to offer their customers a certain degree of flexibility. For example, manufacturer X’s inverter can be combined with any other device. For manufacturers, this could be an opportunity to sell more products, generating more revenue.
If they want to stand a chance to survive in the market, they will need to be open to the possibilities of combination and collaboration with other companies. The competitive pressure is simply enormous.
My PV system, battery and EV-charger at home communicate with each other, but I need different apps to control and monitor everything. If I were to add a heat pump, things would get even more complicated. How can we make this more user-friendly?
From my own experience, which includes working outside the energy industry, I can say this: A great user experience is a must. Controlling the app must be intuitive, fun and work across different media. Using five different apps creates media discontinuity – we need one app for everything. Having five different payment cards in your wallet also constitutes media discontinuity. It’s just no good. The “sexiness” of user experience is critical to the success of the energy transition.
Another important aspect that is often ignored is secure communication.
If we want the system to be accessible at all times, even from abroad and while we’re on vacation, we need to address data protection. Another issue that's often overlooked: Cloud data storage must be cost-effective and sustainable. Each e-mail, each post, each inverter, each heat pump that sends data to the cloud costs money. And there’s a data center running somewhere in the world that also consumes energy.
This is why we need to address cost and sustainability. A solution is user and customer-friendly when all of these aspects are in alignment.
For social media, there’s an app that combines several apps into one. Could this be a solution for energy systems at home?
This kind of single sign-on portal already exists in some other areas. There’s an interface that you log into with a single username and password, which gives you access one to portal that integrates all other systems. This is certainly feasible. This portal allows you to manage users and permissions, which means that a service engineer has different rights to adjust the settings that an end customer. It even provides interfaces to the manufacturer to take care of orders, project planning and design.
What are the latest digitalization developments and trends in the energy market?
As an IT and IoT expert, I would say: “IT is slowly emerging from the basement.” Back in the day, the IT department was responsible for laptops and cell phones, as well as ordering and maintaining printers. Today, it provides the foundation for new business models. IT departments are part of the business itself – they consult product managers, business developers and executives when it comes to new products, for example.
Another trend is cloudification. Many solutions are transferred to the cloud and data is made available through the cloud. AI-based language models are also gaining popularity. ChatGPT is all the rage right now.
How could AI contribute to the energy transition?
There are different views on this.
What we’re mostly seeing these days – and this has become buzzword – is predictive maintenance. Starting with conventional power plants, we could reduce the failure rate of a large business group. AI in the form of a machine learning algorithm runs in the background, informing users when a failure might occur or when it would be best to shut down the entire plant, wait and turn it back on.
Value-based maintenance or predictive maintenance tells me if my storage system is working the way I want, and whether the battery management system is working the way it was designed to work in theory. AI helps the development department, while the aforementioned language model can support the service department.
In the future, we will probably talk more frequently with chatbots, i.e. artificial intelligence, because it can answer questions relatively quickly, clearly and accurately. We won’t be needing people to answer standard questions anymore.
And beyond language models, there’s also image and video analysis, so in the future we’ll be able to have AI plan a PV system, with the ideal amount of modules from the ideal manufacturer for that combination, and decide whether a micro-inverter would be better than a string inverter, for example.