The emerging concept of virtual power plants (VPPs) and the hot, new technology of residential heat pumps are beginning to join hands, as local utilities and at least one big battery maker look to software to connect household energy systems to the grid.
A virtual power plant (VPP) uses cloud computing to connect hundreds or thousands of households that combine the latent energy potential from thermostats, electric vehicles, batteries, and solar arrays to support the grid by flexibly charging and discharging to match shifts in electricity demand. Those small supply sources and savings can help drive down peak electricity demand and either delay or eliminate the need for expensive, new power stations—which in jurisdictions like Ontario are on track to be fuelled by natural gas.
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Now, the list of distributed energy resources incorporated in a VPP is expanding to include heat pumps.
In California, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District invited customers with heat pump water heaters to participate in a VPP pilot program [pdf] if they had devices that could connect to the cloud. And in Markham, Ontario, local utility Alectra launched a pilot [pdf] to retrofit 10 homes with a mix of “controllable electrical equipment” that included solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, electric vehicle chargers—heating units with air-source heat pumps.
And in Germany, battery manufacturer Sonnen GmbH “has implemented a new software solution to seamlessly integrate heat pumps into their energy system,” PV Magazine reports. “It aims to operate the heat pumps smartly and in a grid-friendly manner, contributing to power grid stability by optimizing electricity consumption.”
The system is meant to activate the heat pumps when a home generates or stores more power than it needs, “thus smoothing out generation and consumption peaks,” PV Magazine explains. “This reduces reliance on the power grid, as the heat pumps tap into self-generated renewable energy sources.”
“Heat pumps offer more than traditional heating,” said Klaus Ackermann, managing director of German heat pump manufacturer NIBE, Sonnen’s initial partner on the project. “Intelligently integrating power generation and consumption allows customers to enjoy maximum comfort at low costs and with minimal environmental impact.”