Monographs: Enertronics revolution is here

Just as the Internet revolutionized the world of communication, enertronics will revolutionize the field of energy. The potential for application of this area of knowledge is as broad as it is promising.

Today, the world is moved by fossil fuels. The figures speak for themselves: 86.5% of the energy consumed worldwide comes from oil, coal and gas combustion. But it is equally true that such energy is inexorably approaching exhaustion.

First-world societies have become increasingly aware of the finite, limited nature of these resources, which have been associated over the centuries with industrial progress, wealth and environmental pollution. Consequently, renewable energies have taken on a greater role on the global energy scene in recent years. Indeed, the European Union’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions by 20%, improving energy efficiency by 20% and using 20% renewable energies by 2020 (known as the 20-20-20 goals) has gained ground, and enertronics is claiming a role in this context, which represents a shift in energy models.

More efficient electricity
What is enertronics? The neologism provides clues as to its meaning. Antoni Sudrià, professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering and director of the Center for Technological Innovation in Static Converters and Drives (CITCEA), explains, “Enertronics—like mechatronics—consists in applying a synergistic combination of various branches of engineering such as signal and power electronics, computing and control systems to obtain energy in the most suitable form for its application. This means that electronics can be used to increase the efficiency of electricity and provide new forms of renewable energy.”

The enhanced efficiency offered by enertronics opens up a whole host of new possibilities. Sudrià goes so far as to compare the current status of the discipline with the information processing revolution that occurred with the rise of the internet and computing in the 1990s. "The energy sector is very old. It was applied intensively to industry in the late nineteenth century. It has since evolved, but it has never experienced such a major revolution, until now.” He predicts that, “Just as communications became electronic, energy will rely heavily on electronics. In a few years, users will not know who is supplying energy to their homes. It is similar to what occurs with the internet, from which you can download content without knowing its source. There will be a myriad of companies trying to sell energy.”

Managing demand
The implementation of enertronics is growing: the clearest example can be found in the United States, where next year all electrical appliances will be controlled remotely using enertronic components, which will facilitate the management of energy demand.

Microgrids are expected to become a growing trend in the field of renewable energies in coming years. This means that sustainable energy produced by wind, solar or tidal power, to mention just three, will be distributed by millions of wind and photovoltaic generators installed on houses and buildings. To control such a large number of small generators as a single unit, enertronic equipment will be used to group them into microgrids and remotely monitor each generator.

Our society wants to maintain a high level of well-being, but we must consume less energy or at least consume it more efficiently. Again, a combination of energy processing, communications measures and control is needed to facilitate and shape enertronics. As mentioned, US appliances are an example of this.

Demand management has become increasingly complex, as energy systems are limited and peak power consumption occurs frequently, which causes problems when systems are unable to generate the energy that is required. As Professor Sudrià explains, the solution proposed by the field of enertronics should consider the following: “If consumers don’t mind what time they switch on their dishwashers as long as their dishes are clean by lunchtime or whether or not their tumble dryers stop for half an hour due to a peak use period, this should be taken into account in solving the problem of excess demand and optimal energy management.”

The UPC is considered a leading center for research in the field of enertronics, and work is currently underway at the CITCEA to standardize the enertronic modules for various applications so that a basic design can be used for washing machines, air conditioning units, heaters, etc. Research is also being conducted into controllers for these types of appliances, which need to be “grid-friendly” and should not create disturbances that may affect the quality and safety of the energy supply.

Electric vehicles

“Now is the time for electric cars, thanks to enertronics.” Antoni Sudrià’s message is clear when it comes to implementing vehicles that do not rely on fossil fuels.

Why? One reason is that there is currently a surplus of renewable energy at night. The wind continues to blow, energy consumption drops and this energy, which must be consumed when it is generated, cannot be incorporated into the electrical grid. One way of increasing the percentage of renewable resources that take advantage of this energy is to promote the use of electric vehicles that can be charged slowly overnight. “The electrical grid is underutilized at night, and many devices can be charged using the energy it supplies. The ideal scenario would be for there to be many electric cars that are charged at each person’s home overnight using renewable energy,” explains Sudrià. Moreover, electric cars can serve as a distributed system for energy storage, which is one of the biggest problems in electricity.

According to the Catalan government, there will be 76,000 electric vehicles and 91,200 charge points in Catalonia by 2015. With a clear commitment to a future that is already here, the UPC is also working in the field of electric vehicle charges for motorbikes, cars and trucks.

However, as occurs in any discipline, if enertronics were not economically viable it would be meaningless. Rodrigo Ramírez, professor at the Department of Electrical Engineering, focuses on economic aspects and the rules, regulations and decrees that govern this area of study, with which he needs to be familiar to direct research and to anticipate the changes that may occur in the sector.

The importance of the economy
Ramírez's work also requires a detailed knowledge of the economic side of the energy sector: market prices, supply, demand and consumption, and other variables. For example, the major problem of electric cars is the government’s loss of income from fuel consumption. What will be done with the fuel that is not consumed? How can the government make up for the money lost in non-consumed fossil fuels? Ramírez is also looking for economic solutions that can bring about real change using the ideas contributed by the UPC’s research teams.