China's Energy Internet

Photo:  Jeremy Rifkin

Interest in the energy Internet is growing in China. Following the release of some big reforms, China is moving towards a next-generation grid -- which holds promise for those in energy storage. Here we're looking at the basics of the energy Internet, and discuss what role energy storage has to play.

What is the Energy Internet?

The Third Industrial Revolution, written by Jeremy Rifkin, presents a vision of the energy Internet. He envisions a shared, two-way energy and information network that integrates the electrical grid with natural gas, thermal power, and transportation networks via information communication technology. It relies primarily on renewable energy, and includes distributed elements, information components, and energy storage devices.

  1. Energy networks are the physical foundation of the energy Internet. The electrical grid is the heart of the system. It closely integrates thermal, gas, oil, and transportation systems via electricity storage, thermal storage, and hydrogen storage technologies, as well as via vehicle charging points. High penetrations of distribution resources including distributed generation and storage helps to “flatten” the current top-down energy structure.
  2. Information networks are the nervous system of the energy Internet. Most elements in the energy grid, including generation units, consumers, and T&D substations can be structured as nodes in an information network. This allows operators to collect and analyze grid information such as energy production, usage, demand, and operating status. This helps manage resources on the energy Internet.
  3. Energy management, analysis, and trading platforms within the information network are used to dispatch local or regional energy resources and make the most out of the system. These platforms include big data analysis software, interactive exchange platforms, electric vehicle charging services, demand response platforms, etc.

China's Energy Internet

Research on the energy Internet in China is still in its early stages. According to information leaked from the NEA’s upcoming Energy Internet Action Plan, the energy Internet should rely on real-time, high-speed, two-way information exchange. It should use the electric grid as the core of the system, with a high degree of integration between multiple energy sources and transportation/logistics networks.

In 2014, President Xi Jinping called for an energy consumption revolution, including reduced energy consumption through industrial restructuring, implementation of energy savings guidelines, and the establishment of an energy saving mentality across society. With this in mind, we expect that China's first steps towards integrating energy resources and the Internet are most likely to involve distributed resources, microgrids, demand-side management, contracted resource management, and data-based energy services.

Energy Storage in the Energy Internet

In the energy Internet, energy storage not only includes electrical storage, but also hydrogen, heat, and natural gas storage.

The energy Internet will bring fundamental changes to every link in the energy chain, including production, transmission, and usage. As the "electricity consumption revolution" rolls onward, and continued reforms are made to China's power sector, we expect opportunities for energy storage in demand response, distributed generation, and microgrids.

Demand response in particular seems to be featured in the consumption revolution. It is also highlighted in the NEA's Energy Internet Action Plan. This is good news for energy storage, which can help reduce peak load without affecting consumer energy use.

Earlier this year, in fact, the Beijing municipal government authorized CNESA to operate the city's first integration pilot program. CNESA is helping businesses across the city save money using a custom-built online platform. We hope these experiences will inform future deployments across the country.

The new power sector reforms are also an important development. The reforms are opening up electricity retail, unlocking the potential for more distributed generation and microgrids in China. On 22 July 2015, the NEA followed up with  a document further specifying the role of microgrids in opening up electricity retail and distribution to society at large, titled Guidelines on Promoting the Construction of New Energy Microgrid Demonstration Projects. In line with the principles of an energy Internet, it encourages the use of internet-based and information technologies in generation and usage.

Although many of the precepts of a true energy Internet may be years away, China's policymakers are beginning to recognize the value that these ideas and technologies have. The confluence of power sector reforms and favorable regulations for distributed generation and microgrids suggest that non-hydro energy storage may soon be ready for its China debut.